Are antidepressants safe in pregnancy? A focus on SSRIs

Therapeutics Letter Issue 76 / Jan - Feb 2010

File Downloads

Catherine took paroxetine 20 mg daily 3 years ago at the age of 32 for symptoms of depression from a difficult divorce. She only took it for 2 weeks as it made her feel nervous. Her depression lifted after 6 weeks. She has remarried and she and her new husband were discussing whether to have children, when she discovered that she was 2 months pregnant. She is now experiencing the same symptoms she had 3 years ago and asks her family physician whether she should take an antidepressant. What does the evidence show?

In British Columbia selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI) antidepressant use in pregnancy more than doubled, from 2% in 1998 to 5% in 2001.1 Use in Quebec also doubled over the same period,2 and in 7 U.S. health plans (n=118,935) use grew from 2% in 1996 to 8% in 2004-5.3

Are pregnant women at higher risk for depression?

Pregnancy does not lead to higher rates of depression.4 A systematic review estimates a point prevalence of 3.1%-4.9% per trimester, with 7.5% of women experiencing a new episode of depression during pregnancy.4 A nationally representative U.S. survey found similar rates of depression in pregnant and non-pregnant women: 5.6% vs. 8.1%.5

Does depression in pregnancy lead to harm?

Depression in pregnancy is associated with an increase in prematurity, low birth weight, poor Apgar scores, need for neonatal intensive care, gestational hypertension and pre-eclampsia, operative deliveries, postpartum depression, poor nutrition, smoking, alcohol and drug use.6 However, these studies fail to establish whether depression leads to harm, or whether poorer outcomes are due to an association of depression with factors such as poverty, poor living conditions, lack of social support, and difficult previous pregnancies.

What are the benefits to the mother of SSRIs in pregnancy?

There is no randomized controlled trial (RCT) evidence of benefit; no RCTs have compared SSRIs in pregnancy with non-drug treatments, no treatment or other antidepressants. One frequently cited cohort study (n=201) compared discontinuation of antidepressants for ≥1 week with ongoing use in pregnancy.7 Mean prior depression duration was >15 years; 43% of participants relapsed in pregnancy, including 31% of ongoing users and 68% of those discontinuing use. The authors do not report on withdrawal reactions, no protocol is described for gradual dose reduction, and timing of many relapses suggests withdrawal effects rather than a relapse. Quality of life, functioning, serious and total adverse events, and birth outcomes were not reported.
Publication bias has led to estimates of SSRI efficacy that are exaggerated by one-third in depressed non-pregnant adults.8 SSRIs failed to differ from placebo to a clinically distinguishable extent for mild or moderate depression.9 A meta-analysis comparing drug and non-drug treatments for depression found no difference in general; SSRIs were more effective than psychotherapy to a small, clinically meaningless extent, and psychotherapy was as effective for severe as for milder forms of depression.10

What are the benefits to the infant of SSRIs in pregnancy?

Eight cohort studies with concurrent controls have compared antidepressants to no treatment in women with depression. Three were population-based administrative database analyses, two in British Columbia1, 11, and one in a U.S. health plan, Group Health.12 The other five studies were mainly clinic-based (n=44-107).13,14,15,16,17 These studies provide no evidence that SSRI use improves infant health. Mortality was not examined. Neonatal intensive care use did not differ significantly (n=268; 4 studies): 16.6% on SSRIs vs. 8.6% no drug. Birth weight also did not significantly differ (n=2,279; 6 studies): mean 3.36 kg on SSRIs vs. 3.53 kg no drug. There were more pre-term births on SSRIs (n=548; 3 studies): 11.8% vs. 4.7%, RR=2.2 (95% CI 1.2-4.1), NNH=14; and more infants had respiratory distress at birth (n=1,743; 2 studies): 12.4% vs. 8.2%, RR=1.6 (95% CI 1.2-2.1), NNH=24.

What are the harms to the fetus of SSRIs in pregnancy?

Miscarriages: SSRI use was associated with more spontaneous abortions in a cohort analysis of women contacting a teratology information service (n=1,874)18 and a meta-analysis of 6 cohort studies.19

Cardiac defects: Paroxetine is the only SSRI subject to regulatory warnings of teratogenic risks. A GSK meta-analysis of 14 observational studies to 2008 (10 controlled cohort analyses and 4 case-control studies) found an increase in cardiac malformations, RR=1.5 (95% CI 1.2-1.8), NNH ~200, and total malformations, RR=1.2 (95% CI 1.1-1.4).20 Effects were broadly consistent across settings and research methods.
A class effect appears likely. In an 8-year follow-up of all births in Denmark, 0.9% of women who had filled at least 2 prescriptions for SSRIs during pregnancy (n=1,370) had infants with septal heart defect, versus 0.5% of unexposed women (n=493,113), OR=2.0 (95% CI 1.1-3.5), NNH=246.21 Women exposed to more than one SSRI were at higher risk, OR=4.7 (95% CI 1.7-12.7), NNH=62, versus no exposure. Citalopram, sertraline and any SSRI use were implicated.
In a tertiary care centre in Israel in which all infant heart murmurs were investigated with echocardiography, congenital heart defects were found in 3.4% of babies with 1st trimester SSRI exposure and 1.6% of non-exposed, RR=2.2 (95% CI 1.1-4.4).22 A Dutch study found that children with continuous prenatal SSRI exposure (n=197) had more cardiac surgeries than unexposed children (n=36,998) OR=5.6 (95% CI 1.9-16.3) despite similar rates of diagnostic tests.23
Two studies examined infant cardiac malformation rates among women on SSRIs as compared to non-users with a depression diagnosis and failed to find a difference (n=10,878) RR=1.3 (95% CI 0.7-2.1).11, 12

Persistent pulmonary hypertension of the newborn (PPHN): PPHN occurs in around 1 per 1000 live births and is potentially fatal.24 A case-control study found an over 5-fold increased rate of PPHN in infants exposed to SSRIs after the 20th week of pregnancy.25 A Swedish national birth registry analysis of women exposed to SSRIs late in pregnancy (n=2,350/831,324) also found increased risks of PPHN: RR=3.6 (95% CI 1.2-8.3).26 Two U.S. studies failed to confirm this effect, but both were underpowered to find a difference.27,28

Poor neonatal adaptation: irritability, persistent crying, tremor, restlessness, feeding difficulties and sleep disturbance have been reported in 20-30% of infants following 3rd trimester exposure.29, 30 Symptoms are mainly mild and transient, but convulsions can occur and some infants require intubation. Serum concentrations of paroxetine were higher in infants with poor neonatal adaptation compared with those without symptoms, despite similar maternal paroxetine dose.31 Longer-term adverse developmental and cognitive effects remain largely unknown.

Non-drug treatments

Non-drug treatments are generally poorly tested in pregnancy. One 16-week RCT (n=38) evaluating interpersonal psychotherapy32 and an 8-week RCT (n=150) of acupuncture33 found a reduction in depression symptoms.

Conclusions and clinical implications:

  • There is no evidence that SSRIs in pregnancy improve maternal or infant health, and substantive evidence that they pose a risk to the fetus. Thus the harms exceed the benefits in this setting.
  • Non-drug options such as cognitive behavioural therapy or psychotherapy are also unproven, but do not carry a risk to the fetus. The common argument of their lack of availability is not relevant for this relatively small, high priority population.
  • If a woman wants to stop SSRIs in pregnancy, it is best to taper the dose over at least 1 week to minimize withdrawal symptoms.
  • Exercise, social support, sleep hygiene and good nutrition are important for all pregnant women, including those with symptoms of depression.


NNH = number needed to treat to cause one harmful event
RR = relative risk
CI = confidence interval
OR = odds ratio


The draft of this Therapeutics Letter was submitted for review to 55 experts and primary care physicians in order to correct any inaccuracies and to ensure that the information is concise and relevant to clinicians.



  1. Oberlander TF, Warburton W, Misri S et al. Neonatal outcomes after prenatal exposure to selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor antidepressants and maternal depression using population-based linked health data. Arch Gen Psychiatry 2006; 63(8):898-906.
  2. Ramos E, Oraichi D, Rey E et al. Prevalence and predictors of antidepressant use in a cohort of pregnant women. BJOG 2007; 114(9):1055–1064.
  3. Andrade SE, Raebel MA, Brown J, et al. Use of antidepressant medications during pregnancy: a multisite study. Am J Obstet Gynecol 2008; 198(2):194.e1-e5.
  4. Gaynes BN, Gavin N, Meltzer-Brody S et al. Perinatal depression: prevalence, screening accuracy, and screening outcomes. Evidence Report/Technology Assessment No. 119. AHRQ Publication No. 05- E006-2. Rockville, MD: Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality. February 2005.
  5. Vesga-Lopez O, Blanco C, Keyes K et al. Psychiatric disorders in pregnant and postpartum women in the United States. Arch Gen Psych 2008; 65(7):805-815.
  6. Bonari L, Pinto N, Ahn E et al. Perinatal risks of untreated depression during pregnancy. Can J Psychiatry 2004; 49(11):726-35.
  7. Cohen LS, Altshuler LL, Harlow BL et al. Relapse of major depression during pregnancy in women who maintain or discontinue antidepressant treatment. JAMA 2006; 295(5): 499-507.
  8. Turner EH, Mathews AM, Linardatos E et al. Selective publication of antidepressant trials and its influence on apparent efficacy. N Engl J Med 2008; 358(3):252-60.
  9. Kirsch I, Deacon BJ, Huedo-Medina TB et al. Initial severity and antidepressant benefits:a meta-analysis of data submitted to the Food and Drug Administration. PLoS Med 2008; 5(2):e45.
  10. Cuijpers P, van Straten A, van Oppen P, Andersson G. Are psychological and pharmacologic interventions equally effective in the treatment of adult depressive disorders? A meta-analysis of comparative studies. J Clin Psychiatry 2008; 69(11):1675–85.
  11. Oberlander TF, Warburton W, Misri S et al. Major congenital malformation following prenatal exposure to serotonin reuptake inhibitors and benzodiazepines using population-based health data. Birth Defects Research. Part B, Developmental and Reproductive Toxicology 2008; 83(1):68-76.
  12. Simon GE, Cunningham ML, Davis RL. Outcomes of prenatal antidepressant exposure. American Journal of Psychiatry 2002; 159(12):2055-61.
  13. Casper RC, Fleisher BE, Lee-Ancajas JC et al. Follow-up of children of depressed mothers exposed or not exposed to antidepressant drugs during pregnancy. Journal of Pediatrics 2003; 142(4):402-8.
  14. Wisner KL, Sit DKY, Hanusa BH et al. Major depression and antidepressant treatment: impact on pregnancy and neonatal outcomes. Am J Psychiatry 2009; 166(5):557-66.
  15. Suri R, Altshuler L, Helleman G et al. Effects of antenatal depression and antidepressant treatment on gestational age at birth and risk of preterm birth. American Journal of Psychiatry 2007; 164(8):1206-13.
  16. Suri R, Altshuler L, Hendrick V et al. The impact of depression and fluoxetine treatment on obstetrical outcome. Archives of Women's Mental Health 2004; 7(3):193-200.
  17. Oberlander JF, Weinberg J, Papsdorf M et al. Prenatal exposure to maternal depression, neonatal methylation of human glucocorticoid receptor gene (NK3C1) and infant cortisol stress response. Epigenetics: Official Journal of the DNA Methylation Society 2008; 3(2):97-106.
  18. Einarson A, Choi J, Einarson TR, Koren G. Rates of spontaneous and therapeutic abortions following use of antidepressants in pregnancy: results from a large prospective database. JOGC 2009; 31(5):452–56.
  19. Hemels ME, Einarson A, Koren G et al. Antidepressant use during pregnancy and the rates of spontaneous abortions: a meta-analysis. Ann Pharmacother 2005; 39(5):803–9.
  20. Wurst KE, Poole C, Ephross SA, Olshan AF. First trimester paroxetine use and the prevalence of congenital, specifically cardiac, defects: A meta-analysis of epidemiological studies. Birth Defects Research Part A: Clinical and Molecular Teratology 2009; DOI: 10.1002/bdra.20627 [early on-line edition].
  21. Pedersen LH, Henriksen TB, Vestergaard M et al. Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors in pregnancy and congenital malformations: population based cohort study. BMJ 2009; 339:b3569 doi:10.1136/bmj.b3569.
  22. Merlob P, Birk E, Sirota L et al. Are selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors cardiac teratogens? Echocardiographic screening of newborns with persistent heart murmur. Birth Defects Research 2009; 85(10):837–41.
  23. Ververs T, van Wensen K, Freund MW et al. Association between antidepressant drug use during pregnancy and child healthcare utilisation. BJOG 2009; 116(12):1568–77.
  24. Mills JL. Depressing Observations on the use of selective serotonin-reuptake inhibitors during pregnancy. N Engl J Med 2006; 354(6):636-38.
  25. Chambers CD, Hernandez-Diaz S, Van Marter LJ et al. Selective serotonin-reuptake inhibitors and risk of persistent pulmonary hypertension of the newborn. N Engl J Med 2006; 354(6):579-87.
  26. Kallen B, Olausson PO. Maternal use of selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors and persistent pulmonary hypertension of the newborn. Pharmacoepidemiology & Drug Safety 2008; 17(8):801–6.
  27. Andrade SE, McPhillips H, Loren D et al. Antidepressant medication use and risk of persistent pulmonary hypertension of the newborn. Pharmacoepidemiology & Drug Safety 2009; 18(3):246–52.
  28. Wichman CL, Moore KM, Lang TR et al. Congenital heart disease associated with selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor use during pregnancy. Mayo Clin Proc 2009; 84(1):23-27.
  29. Costei AM, Kozer E, Ho T et al. Perinatal outcome following third trimester exposure to paroxetine. Arch Pediatr Adolesc Med 2002; 156(11):1129-32.
  30. Chambers CD, Johnson KA, Dick LM et al. Birth outcomes in pregnant women taking fluoxetine. N Engl J Med 1996; 335(14):1010-5.
  31. Oberlander TF, Misri S, Fitzgerald CE et al. Pharmacologic factors associated with transient neonatal symptoms following prenatal psychotropic medication exposure. J Clin Psychiatry 2004; 65(2):230-7.
  32. Dennis CL, Ross LE, Grigoriadis S. Psychosocial and psychological interventions for treating antenatal depression. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews 2007, Issue 3. Art. No.: CD006309. DOI:10.1002/14651858.CD006309.pub2.
  33. Manber R, Schnyer RN, Lyell D. et al. Acupuncture for depression in pregnancy: a randomized controlled trial. Obstet Gynecol 2010; 115(3):511–20.


Baby deaths spark fears over antidepressants

In an article published on today (Sep 20, 2011) by Kathy Tomlinson, two B.C. families whose infants died inexplicably while mothers were on Effexor are sounding the alarm about mothers taking antidepressants while pregnant. Read more: