Pediatrics Articles

Do antidepressants in pregnancy cause autism?

by Dr. Randy


The studies

Another link between drugs and autism has been discovered. Two recent studies have shown an association between antidepressant use during pregnancy and an increased risk of autism in children. The risk of having an autistic child was doubled by the use of antidepressants taken during pregnancy.  A large Swedish study published in the British Medical Journal included more than 1,600 autistic children whose mothers took any kind of antidepressant during their pregnancy. The results showed an increased incidence of autism in the antidepressant group compared to a control group.

A second study published in 2011 showed a 2-fold increased risk of autism if mothers took antidepressants in the year before delivery and a 3-fold increased risk with antidepressant use in the first trimester of pregnancy. These results were compared to mothers with a known history of mental illness, but without use of antidepressants and their children did not show an increased risk of autism.

The reason

The authors suggest that the explanation for this association may be that antidepressants alter serotonin mechanisms in the brain of the fetus. Many autistic children have elevated levels of serotonin in the blood with deficient brain serotonin levels or abnormal serotonin synthesis or receptor binding. They also note that animal studies have shown that antidepressant use in pregnancy increases behavior abnormalities similar to autism in humans. 


There are natural methods for the treatment of depression. Start with a simple program of increased exercise, a whole foods diet, and adequate sleep. Of course depression itself as well as pregnancy can cause sleep disturbance. Calcium and magnesium are natural relaxants that can help sleep when taken before bed. A safe holistic program for depression during pregnancy may include supplements that balance neurotransmitters and improve sleep. Acupuncture is also a safe method to use for depression and sleep problems during pregnancy. Seek out a holistic practitioner who can develop a natural approach to depression which may include neurotransmitter testing and targeted nutritional supplements.


Rai D, Lee BK, Dalman C, et al. Parental depression, maternal antidepressant use during pregnancy, and risk of autism spectrum disorders: population based case-control study. British Medical Journal 2013;346:f2059 (Published 19 April 2013)

Croen LA, Grether JK, Yoshida CK, et al. Antidepressant Use During Pregnancy and Childhood Autism Spectrum Disorders. Arch Gen Psychiatry. 2011;68(11):1104-1112