Paracetamol use in pregnancy linked to child behavioural issues.

There is a study making headlines throughout the world today and sending already anxious pregnant women into a spin.

The British study links the use of paracetamol during pregnancy with behavioural problems in children. Researchers at the University of Bristol found five percent of children born to pregnant participants taking paracetamol had behavioural problems by the age of seven.

Paracetamol (Acetaminophen) has long been considered safe during pregnancy and is widely used by many pregnant women for pain and fever – so it’s natural that if you are pregnant, or have ever been pregnant and taken one of these products you might be freaking out.

But pregnancy is already stressful enough without scaremongering headlines, so lets breakdown a few facts.

Researchers from the UK’s University of Bristol analysed data for 7,796 mothers enrolled in the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children between 1991 and 1992, along with their children and partners. They examined associations between behavioural problems in children and their mothers’ prenatal and postnatal paracetamol use. They also looked paracetamol use by their partners.

The study, reported in the journal JAMA Paediatrics, reported that 5% of children had behavioural problems including conduct problems and that the children of mothers who used paracetamol at 18 and 32 weeks of pregnancy were more likely to have conduct problems and hyperactivity symptoms, while the children of mothers who took paracetamol at 32 weeks were also more likely to have emotional symptoms and total difficulties.

Dr Ric Gordon discusses the study on Nine's TODAY.. Post continues after video...


But even the authors caution pregnant women who have taken paracetamol not to be concerned.

“The risk of not treating fever or pain during pregnancy should be carefully weighed against any potential harm of acetaminophen to the offspring” wrote lead author Evie Stergiakouli of the University of Bristol. They also suggested that that" the timing of acetaminophen use might be important."

 Children of mothers who took paracetamol at 32 weeks were more likely to have emotional symptoms. Image via IStock.

The study did have its limitations including a lack of data on the dosage or duration of acetaminophen use, the authors note in JAMA Pediatrics.


The study also refers to an earlier one that tracked 64,000 Danish women and their babies and reported a correlation between paracetamol use during pregnancy and ADHD-like behaviour in children at seven years of age.

But pregnancy brings with it enough anxiety (which can also be harmful to developing babies) so before panicking pregnant women should consider the fact that this study shows a very small risk.

Dr Luke Grzeskowiak, a specialist pharmacist and researcher at the Robinson Institute and University of Adelaide, has told Fairfax Media the study showed “a very small actual risk” with women using paracetamol during pregnancy having a 30 per cent increased relative risk of having a child with behavioural problems.

"We're talking about an extra one to two cases [of behavioural problems] per 100 births being linked to paracetamol use," he said.

"So in this study, 95 per cent of mums who took paracetamol during pregnancy had a child with no problems at seven years of age … I think that message gets lost in a lot of this."

95% of mums who took paracetamol during pregnancy had a child with no problems at seven years of age. Image via IStock.

Dr Grzeskowiak said paracetamol should still be first choice of painkiller for pregnant women because others, such as ibuprofen had been linked to an increased risk of miscarriage during early in pregnancy, and harm to the fetus' kidneys and heart later in pregnancy.

University of Melbourne neuroscientist Norman Saunders told News Limited the new findings “warranted further research”, but it was important to consider whether the behavioural problems could have been triggered by the infections that caused mothers to take the drug in the first place.

As when the Danish study came out the advice from experts is simple – the possible harm from fevers and other illnesses could be worse.

"The key message from this study is only to take paracetamol when absolutely necessary and to take it for the shortest possible duration, not to avoid it completely," Dr Grzeskowiak said.

If you are concerned about your personal circumstances, Mamamia encourages you to seek medical advice.

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