Babies whose mothers took antidepressants, (such as Zoloft, Celexa and Prozac) during pregnancy, show signs of early language development.
On the other hand, babies of depressed moms who were not treated with selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors or SSRIs, showed a delayed ability to learn their native languages. That’s according to researchers from the University of British Columbia.
Babies were divided into three groups: those that were exposed to SSRIs in utero, those of depressed moms who weren’t on SSRIs, and those with mothers with no symptoms of depression.
In the study, published on Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers tested how the babies responded to language at 36 weeks gestation. They measured their heart rates, and at six and 10 months after birth, they measured changes in heart rate and eye movement in response to sounds and videos of people talking in the babies’ native and non-native language.
Early response to language
Babies begin to respond to language and facial expressions very early in their development, says Janet Werker, a psychology professor at UBC and senior author of the study.
But at about nine months of age, however, babies typically begin to ignore the consonants used in languages other than their native tongue, and focus on learning their native language.
In this case, babies exposed to SSRIs were “at least three months advanced,” Werker says.
But according to Werker, this accelerated learning of language “isn’t necessarily a good thing.” The study looked at only a few measures of the larger system of language acquisition. If some aspects progress before others, there is a risk of mistiming in the language system, which could affect overall language development, she explains.
Werker says it’s pointless for mothers to worry about their decision to either accept or decline antidepressants during treatment. Since “we don’t know at this point whether these differences in timing [in babies exposed to antidepressants] have long-term consequences,” she says.
Treating depression during pregnancy
But with this said, the risks of untreated maternal depression are well known. They include preterm birth, low birth weight, sleeping and eating problems and insecure attachment in infancy, and long-term cognitive, behavioural and emotional problems, says Tim Oberlander, co-author of the study and a professor of developmental pediatrics at UBC and the Children and Family Research Institute at BC Children’s Hospital.
“Non-treatment of maternal depression is not an option,” he says.
Depression occurs in 10 to 20 per cent of pregnancies. Studies have found that major depression in pregnancy is the strongest predictor of postpartum depression disorder.
Nevertheless, many women go off antidepressants during pregnancy out of fear of harming their unborn baby.