Paracetamol during pregnancy: a link with depressive symptoms in childhood?

pregnant woman

Growing Up in New Zealand study explores whether there could there be a link between mothers taking paracetamol during pregnancy and their children exhibiting symptoms of depression.

Could there be a link between mothers taking paracetamol during pregnancy and depression suffered by some of their children?  

A study using Growing Up in New Zealand information shows a “small but significant” statistical association. 

University of Auckland School of Psychology Professor, Karen Waldie, and her colleagues analysed data from nearly 4,000 eight-year olds and their mothers involved in Growing Up in New Zealand.

“Women shouldn’t be alarmed, but mounting evidence suggests it may be wise to use as low a dose of paracetamol as possible for the shortest time possible during pregnancy,” says Professor Waldie.

The researchers mined data from the Growing Up study to look for statistical associations between the health and lifestyles of women during pregnancy and the later incidence of signs of depression in children. 

The data came from quizzing mothers during pregnancy and, eight years later, quizzing children on signs of depression such as low mood, loss of appetite, and sleep disturbance.

Using statistical methods to analyse the information, the researchers found four lifestyle and health factors that seemed to be predictive of later signs of depression in kids.

These were: 

  • Paracetamol use (also including Panadol, which contains acetaminophen)
  • Being obese or overweight
  • Smoking
  • Stress

“Surprisingly,” the researchers wrote in the Journal of Affective Disorders, the data didn’t show statistical associations for alcohol consumption, antidepressant use, smoking, or folate and multivitamin intake.  It also showed that most mothers took paracetamol during pregnancy. 

The study feeds into research around the world on how exposure to certain nutrients and chemicals during pregnancy may affect how children develop. This “fetal programming” could work partly by affecting the expression and function of genes. 

In September last year, a group of international scientists urged caution around paracetamol during pregnancy, citing epidemiological studies and experimental research suggesting exposure could alter fetal development, increasing the risk of neurodevelopmental, reproductive and urogenital disorders. 

Epidemiological studies have shown statistical associations with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), autism spectrum disorder, language delay in girls and decreased intelligence quotients.

However, nothing is proven. In addition, there are limited alternatives to one of the world’s most popular drugs for treating pain and fever, and risks to mother and baby from leaving pain or fever unchecked. 

“We recognize that limited medical alternatives exist to treat pain and fever,” the international scientists said in the journal Nature Reviews Endocrinology. However, “the combined weight of animal and human scientific evidence is strong enough for pregnant women to be cautioned by health professionals against its indiscriminate use, both as a single ingredient and in combination with other medications.”

Professor Waldie says she supports that statement. 

A previous University of Auckland study strengthened the case that taking paracetamol during pregnancy may increase the risk of ADHD-like behaviours in children.

The more recent research was, as far as the Auckland academics know, the first to point to a potential link between paracetamol and childhood depression. 

The prevalence of depression in young people has increased rapidly over the past 10 years, Professor Waldie and her colleagues wrote in the research paper. “Existing research from the United States indicates that depression affects around 1 percent of pre-schoolers and 2 percent of children.”

Young people who experience depression are at an increased risk of adverse psychosocial and developmental outcomes including dependence on alcohol, potential suicidality, and impaired academic performance, the academics say.

Honours student Gisela Theunissen was the lead author of the paper.  You can read the full paper here.