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Could acetaminophen use during pregnancy cause ADHD in children?

A new study may leave mothers-to-be uncertain about a widely recommended drug, acetaminophen. Acetaminophen is the main ingredient in Tylenol and many other pain medicines.

If you’re pregnant and have a backache or headache, doctors usually recommend acetaminophen. But recent research says taking the drug during pregnancy may be associated with hyperactivity in children. This study, published in JAMA Pediatrics, found a possible link between acetaminophen use in pregnancy and children developing attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

They studied about 7,800 women and their children over the course of more than seven years. At 18-weeks pregnant, more than half the mothers reported using acetaminophen for pain relief. Overall, the children whose mothers took acetaminophen during pregnancy were about 1.4 times more likely to have behavioral problems and 1.3 times more likely to be hyperactive.

There were, however, some flaws in the study. Information on the children’s behavior came from the mothers’ responses on questionnaires. The children weren’t clinically diagnosed with ADHD. The study also didn’t look at how much acetaminophen the women took or for how long, and the women didn’t report why they used the drug.

This was a good study, but more research is needed to find a true cause and effect.

Unfortunately, there is not another medicine choice in pregnancy for fevers or pain that is safer. Acetaminophen has been considered the go-to pain reliever for pregnant women. Ibuprofen and aspirin can cause complications in pregnancy.

There are situations when you shouldn’t forego taking acetaminophen. For example, untreated fever during pregnancy can have severe consequences, such as premature birth.

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Most of my patients take acetaminophen for backaches. I tell them to try and use other modalities such as massage or acupuncture. Topical applications of analgesics like Bengay or warm packs for short periods of time can also help with the pain.

I tell my patients, as with anything, use only what is needed and limit as you’re able.

About the author

LeAnn Haddock, MD
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Dr. LeAnn Haddock is an OB/Gyn on the medical staff at Baylor University Medical Center at Dallas.

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Could acetaminophen use during pregnancy cause ADHD in children?