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Antidepressants in Pregnancy

“Be patient with yourself… nothing in Nature blooms all year.” One of my favourite quotes regarding perinatal depression and anxiety which affects 10-16% of all new parents.

The importance of perinatal mental health cannot be overstated. Research has shown that an untreated perinatal mental health condition can lead to substance misuse, poor antenatal attendance as well as poor self-care.

There is also a risk of poor attachment to the infant, and a long-term risk of poor child development outcomes through neglect. Suicide is the final risk. The government have recently supported our concerns regarding this important topic by changing the MBS item numbers (16590, 16591, 16407) to include a mental health assessment.

We have a duty of care to our patients to know what is safe to prescribe or continue to use in pregnancy- remembering that pregnancy is not protective against mental illness.

Did you know that more than half of all women abruptly discontinue antidepressant medication upon confirming a pregnancy? Almost 70% of these women suffer a relapse of depression.

Currently the recommendations for a woman on an antidepressant who has been euthymic for at least 12 months include cease the medication in pregnancy, continue the current medication, change to an alternative, safer medication or cease the medication and then reintroduce it if a relapse occurs.

Antidepressant medications can cross the placenta, meaning the fetus is exposed. There are also potential pregnancy complications, but the risks to the fetus and the pregnancy are very low.

Congenital malformation may occur from exposure to some antidepressants in the first trimester. Growth restriction and neurobehavioural problems may result from exposure in the second trimester. And congenital cardiac defects have been associated with paroxetine use in pregnancy.

Postpartum haemorrhage is the only significant potential obstetric complication associated with SSRI and SNRI use. There is also a small increased risk of persistent pulmonary hypertension of the newborn associated with SSRI, SNRI and TCA use in late pregnancy.

Antidepressants taken in late pregnancy, may also cause poor neonatal adaptation syndrome (PNAS). This manifests as hypotonia, respiratory distress, hypoglycaemia, seizures and most commonly ‘jittery-ness’ in the infant. Paroxetine has the highest risk of PNAS.

Despite this, it is NOT recommended that the dose of medication be reduced in late pregnancy. Because the fetus may not clear the medication in the same way the mother does, lowering the dose might simply risk a relapse of depression in the mother while gaining little or no benefit to the infant.

RANZCOG states that SSRIs are generally considered low risk and safe to prescribe in pregnancy and breastfeeding. It is important to know that sertraline has the lowest placental exposure and the lowest excretion into breastmilk.

Other medications are listed in the table below as a quick reference guide:


Medication Pregnancy Category Breastfeeding

* avoid doxepin during breastfeeding

C Compatible
Citalopram C Compatible

*preferred to citalopram in breastfeeding

C Compatible
Fluoxetine C Compatible
Mirtazapine C Compatible

*can cause cardiac defects with high dose first trimester but safest for breastfeeding along with sertraline

D Compatible
Sertraline B Compatible
Venlafaxine C Compatible

Compatible- an acceptably low relative infant dose or no significant plasma concentrations or no adverse effects in breastfed infants.

When managing perinatal depression is it important to consider potential risk against the known benefits of the medications and the potential detrimental effects of mental illness on the development of the infant and other children in the home.

Key References:

  1. The Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists.  Perinatal Depression and Anxiety: C-Obs 48. East Melbourne (AU): RANZCOG; Mar 2015. 16 p. RANZCOG Cat. No.: C-Obs 48. Available from: https://www.ranzcog.edu.au/RANZCOG_SITE/media/RANZCOG-MEDIA/Women%27s%20Health/Statement%20and%20guidelines/Clinical-Obstetrics/Mental-health-care-in-the-perinatal-period-(C-Obs-48).pdf?ext=.pdf
  2. White L. Antidepressants in Pregnancy. O&G Magazine. 2018; 20(3): 24-25. Available from: https://www.ogmagazine.org.au/20/3-20/antidepressants-in-pregnancy/
  3. Galbally M, Lewis AJ, Snellen M. Introduction Pharmacological management of major depression in pregnancy. In: Gabally M, Snellen M, Lewis AJ, editors. Psychopharmacology and Pregnancy. Berlin: Springer; 2014. p. 67-85.


Dr Julia Marcello works at Bentley Maternity Unit which provides maternity services to low risk women in WA. The unit is staffed by GP obstetricians, specialist obstetricians and gynaecologists and midwives and offers the option of private care within a public setting. The midwife service is available to low risk women and includes antenatal care, birthing services and postnatal care through the visiting midwifery service and lactation consultant support.  GP shared care services are also available. The Unit also provides a gynaecology service led by Dr Aseel Alkiaat and specialists from King Edward Hospital. 

For further information go to www.bhs.health.wa.gov.au\For-health-professionals