Study: Prenatal Exposure to ADHD Medication Does Not Impact Neurodevelopment
ADHD medication use during pregnancy did not elevate rates of neurodevelopment or growth impairments in children, according to a long-term study designed to examine the effects of prenatal exposure to ADHD medication.
March 27, 2023
The use of ADHD medication during pregnancy causes no impairment of a child’s neurodevelopment or physical growth, according to research published in Molecular Psychiatry.1 A large population-based register study found in-utero exposure to medication for ADHD, including stimulants, did not impair a child’s neurodevelopment or growth compared to children whose mothers stopped taking ADHD medication prior to conception.
Research was conducted using data from Danish nationwide registers, including more than one million children born between 1998 and 2015. Of those, 898 children were delivered by mothers who started or continued taking ADHD medication during pregnancy; this became the study’s “exposed” group. The “unexposed” group included 1,270 children whose mothers discontinued — but had previously taken — ADHD medication before conception.
Prenatal & Postnatal Exposure to ADHD Medication
After adjusting for maternal demographic characteristics and psychiatric data, researchers found no difference in long-term neurodevelopmental or growth outcomes between the two groups. In other words, women could stop taking medication before conception or continue during pregnancy without putting their child at greater risk of neurodevelopmental psychiatric disorders (ADHD, ASD); neurodevelopmental impairments (vision, hearing, seizures, epilepsy); or growth impairments.
Though the percentage is small, the number of pregnant women taking ADHD medication has steadily increased over time.2, 3 In fact, ADHD medication is one of the most common medications prescribed during pregnancy.3, 4
In a recent survey of ADDitude readers, 2.39% of 1,170 women who had been pregnant reported taking medication for their ADHD following conception. Many of those who did not take medication said they remained undiagnosed and untreated at the time of their pregnancies, and therefore had no prescribed medications. Just 2.58% took ADHD medication while breastfeeding.
If a woman decides to discontinue use while both pregnant and breastfeeding, she may go a year or longer without pharmacological treatment — a first-line treatment for ADHD.
“I stopped [taking] Adderall leading up until delivery, and had been told I couldn’t take it at all during breastfeeding,” wrote one 33-year-old woman in Texas. “I went back to work three months postpartum. I really struggled with symptoms and felt unable to do my job.
“I did some additional research… that suggested a low breastmilk transfer rate for Adderall, and an even lower rate with Ritalin. Five months postpartum, I brought that data to my GP, who agreed to prescribe 5mg of Ritalin twice daily. I continued exclusively breastfeeding for two more months, then did a combination of breastfeeding and formula until weaning completely when my daughter was nine months. At that time, my GP switched me back to Adderall. During this time, my daughter showed no adverse effects, remaining on her growth trajectory in the 90th percentile and sleeping like a champ!”
Impact on Children
The decision to cease or continue treatment for ADHD while pregnant is difficult, in large part because the effects of ADHD medication in utero are not well-documented. Due to the nature of the problem, research is limited to register studies like this most recent one — the second and largest long-term register study to examine the effects of ADHD medication during pregnancy.
In addition, the research is conflicting. A 2015 U.S. population-based study found that ADHD medication use in early pregnancy was associated with three specific, selected birth defects.5 Another U.S.-based study, published in 2017, suggested an increased risk of cardiovascular defects from prenatal exposure to methylphenidate — but not amphetamines.6
While exposed children faced no increased risks for common neurodevelopmental outcomes in the present study, researchers found that exposed children born to mothers who used other psychotropic medication during pregnancy were more likely to develop ADHD. This was also found when the mother had filled two or more prescriptions for ADHD medication during pregnancy.
Because the increased risk was limited to ADHD only, researchers speculate these results may be “driven by severity of maternal ADHD” through “higher disease liability for ADHD and through referral bias, that is, offspring of mothers with severe ADHD are assessed more carefully for ADHD.”
Impact on Women with ADHD
On average, women in the U.S. have their first child by age 27.7 According to the ADDitude survey, it’s around this time that women report a major impact caused by their ADHD symptoms. The majority — 64% to 70% of 2,010 respondents — said the overall impact of ADHD was major or life-altering in their 20s and 30s.
Half of survey respondents who had been pregnant said their ADHD symptoms remained stable during pregnancy. But following delivery, 56.7% of them said they experienced symptoms of postpartum depression. Around more than one-third told ADDitude these symptoms lasted for more than 6 months; for nearly 10%, postpartum depression lasted more than two years.
Similar findings were discovered in a 2020 survey conducted by the MGH Center for Women’s Mental Health. No significant changes in ADHD symptoms were reported by women during pregnancy, but those who chose to discontinue psychostimulant medication experienced a significant increase in postpartum depressive symptoms. Women who elected to adjust their ADHD medication use, or maintained the same prescription schedule, did not experience a significant change in depressive symptoms.
Limitations and Future Research
“Pregnant women who depend on stimulants for daily functioning must weigh the potential of exposing their fetus to unknown developmental risks against potential medical, ﬁnancial, and other consequences to both mother and child that are associated with exacerbation of ADHD symptoms when stopping the medication, such as inability to maintain employment and unsafe driving,” the researchers stated.
ADHD medication in the present study included stimulants (methylphenidate, amphetamine, dexamphetamine, lisdexamphetamine) and other treatments (modaﬁnil, atomoxetine, clonidine).
“The present study provides reassurance that several essential categories of child outcomes that could reasonably be suspected to be affected by stimulants, including body growth, neurodevelopment, and seizure risk, do not differ based on antenatal stimulant exposure.”
Compared to women without ADHD, the study’s sample population of women with ADHD tended to be younger at the time of childbirth, more likely to smoke during pregnancy, and more likely to have children born preterm or with low birth weight. This finding was consistent regardless of whether the mother took ADHD medication during pregnancy.
Finally, more research is needed to differentiate between the effects of ADHD medication types, dosage, and trimester. This study was limited to diagnoses formally entered into the Danish register. Future research should be expanded to include a larger sample population.
View Article Sources
1Madsen, K. B., Robakis, T. K., Liu, X., Momen, N., Larsson, H., Dreier, J. W., … Bergink, V. (2023). In utero exposure to ADHD medication and long-term offspring outcomes. Molecular Psychiatry, 1–8. doi: 10.1038/s41380-023-01992-6
2Lemelin, M., Boukhris, T., Zhao, J. P., Sheehy, O., & Bérard, A. (2021). Prevalence and determinants of attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) medication use during pregnancy: Results from the Quebec pregnancy/children cohort. Pharmacology research & perspectives, 9(3), e00781. https://doi.org/10.1002/prp2.781
3Haervig, K. B., Mortensen, L. H., Hansen, A. V., & Strandberg-Larsen, K. (2014). Use of ADHD medication during pregnancy from 1999 to 2010: A Danish register-based study. Pharmacoepidemiology and drug safety, 23(5), 526–533. https://doi.org/10.1002/pds.3600
4Louik, C., Kerr, S., Kelley, K. E., & Mitchell, A. A. (2015). Increasing use of ADHD medications in pregnancy. Pharmacoepidemiol Drug Saf, 24, 218– 220, doi: 10.1002/pds.3742.
5Anderson, K. N., Dutton, A. C., Broussard, C. S., Farr, S. L., Lind, J. N., Visser, S. N., Ailes, E. C., Shapira, S. K., Reefhuis, J., & Tinker, S. C. (2020). ADHD medication use during pregnancy and risk for selected birth defects: National birth defects prevention study, 1998-2011. Journal of Attention Disorders, 24(3), 479–489. https://doi.org/10.1177/1087054718759753
6Huybrechts, K. F., Bröms, G., Christensen, L. B., Einarsdóttir, K., Engeland, A., Furu, K., Gissler, M., Hernandez-Diaz, S., Karlsson, P., Karlstad, Ø., Kieler, H., Lahesmaa-Korpinen, A. M., Mogun, H., Nørgaard, M., Reutfors, J., Sørensen, H. T., Zoega, H., & Bateman, B. T. (2018). Association between methylphenidate and amphetamine use in pregnancy and risk of congenital malformations: A cohort study from the international pregnancy safety study consortium. JAMA psychiatry, 75(2), 167–175. https://doi.org/10.1001/jamapsychiatry.2017.3644
7Osterman, M.J.K., Hamilton, B.E., Martin, J.A., Driscoll, A.K., & Valenzuela, C.P. (2023). Births: Final data for 2021. National Vital Statistics Reports; 72(1). DOI: https://dx.doi. org/10.15620/cdc:122047.