Pregnant women who take paracetamol could have children with behavioural problems

Woman taking a pill
Women are advised against taking too much paracetamol while pregnant. Photo credit: Getty

Women who take paracetamol during pregnancy could be more likely to have children with behavioural issues.

A new study suggests a link between use of the popular painkiller while pregnant and hyperactivity and attention problems in children.

Results of the University of Bristol's 'Children of the 90s' study from the early 1990s have just been published in the journal Paediatric and Perinatal Epidemiology. The long-term study examined 14,150 pregnant women between 1991 and 1992, who were all asked about their painkiller usage.

Some 43 percent of the women, who were all seven months into their pregnancies at the time of the questionnaire, said they'd taken paracetamol 'sometimes' or more often in the previous three months. 

Paracetamol is a popular over-the-counter medication to relieve the pain common during pregnancy, and is recommended by the UK's National Health Service (NHS) as it's a treatment of choice for pregnant women.

When the children of the study participants were of pre-school age, researchers analysed their results in a number of memory, IQ and development tests, as well as their general temperament and behaviour.

They found a link between paracetamol intake during mid-pregnancy (18-32 weeks) and higher levels of hyperactivity and attention problems. They also noted children whose mothers had taken paracetamol while pregnant were more likely to display "other difficult behaviours" that could not be accounted for by social factors.

Interestingly, boys whose mothers had taken paracetamol appeared more prone to such behavioural difficulties than girls in the same situation. 

By the time the children involved in the study reached the end of primary school, these behavioural issues were less apparent. 

The study notes that despite a previously-known connection between paracetamol use in pregnancy and childhood asthma, "the medical profession is relatively relaxed about the use of this analgesic". 

"In addition, there is now increasing evidence that prenatal exposure to the drug increases the risk of childhood hyperactivity and diagnosed ADHD," the study reads.

Dr Jean Golding, who led and founded the 'Children of the 90s' study, says it's the latest concerning finding indicating possible adverse effects of taking paracetamol while pregnant.

"It reinforces the advice that women should be cautious when taking medication during pregnancy and to seek medical advice where necessary," she says, while saying more studies are needed to prove a causal link. 

Her colleague Dr James Dear says only "the lowest dose for the shortest time should be taken" and only if paracetamol is clearly needed. 

Researchers pointed to the thalidomide tragedy as another drug once thought to have been harmless for pregnant women. Commonly prescribed as a sleeping pill up until the early 1960s, thalidomide was later linked with severe birth defects in babies whose mothers had taken the drug. 


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