Acetaminophen use in pregnancy may increase risk of attention and behavior problems in children

A new study has found that taking acetaminophen, a common painkiller and fever reducer, during pregnancy may be associated with higher chances of attention and behavior problems in children. The study, published in the journal Neurotoxicology and Teratology, followed hundreds of children from birth to age four and assessed their prenatal exposure to acetaminophen and their developmental outcomes.

Acetaminophen, also known as paracetamol or Tylenol, is widely used by pregnant women to relieve pain and fever. However, some previous studies have suggested that acetaminophen may interfere with the development of the fetal brain and increase the risk of neurodevelopmental disorders such as attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and autism spectrum disorder (ASD).

Acetaminophen use in pregnancy may increase risk of attention and behavior problems in children
Acetaminophen use in pregnancy may increase risk of attention and behavior problems in children

The new study, conducted by researchers at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, aimed to provide more evidence on the potential effects of acetaminophen on child development. The study was part of the Illinois Kids Development Study (IKIDS), which explores how environmental exposures influence child development.

The researchers collected data on the acetaminophen use of pregnant women six times during their pregnancy, roughly once every four-to-six weeks. They also asked caregivers to answer standardized questions about their child’s behavior and ability to pay attention at ages two, three, and four.

Increased risk of attention and behavior problems

The study found that with increasing acetaminophen use by pregnant women, especially during the second trimester, their children showed more attention-related problems and ADHD-type behaviors at every age they measured. These problems included difficulty focusing, impulsivity, hyperactivity, and oppositional behavior.

The study also found that acetaminophen use during the third trimester was linked to higher risk of attention and behavior problems in children. However, acetaminophen use during the first trimester or for less than 28 days during pregnancy did not show any significant association with child development.

The researchers adjusted for potential confounding factors such as maternal age, education, socioeconomic status, mental health, smoking, alcohol use, and febrile illness during pregnancy. They also noted that the acetaminophen exposure was self-reported by the pregnant women and the dose and frequency of the medication were not measured.

Implications and limitations

The study adds to the growing body of evidence that suggests that acetaminophen use in pregnancy may have adverse effects on the developing brain of the fetus. The researchers cautioned that acetaminophen should not be used indiscriminately by pregnant women and that they should consult their health care providers before taking any medication.

However, the study also had some limitations that need to be considered. The study was observational and could not establish a causal relationship between acetaminophen use and child development. The study also relied on self-reported data and did not account for other sources of acetaminophen exposure such as from food or environmental contaminants. The study also did not assess the diagnosis of ADHD or ASD in the children or the genetic factors that may influence the susceptibility to these disorders.

The researchers suggested that more studies are needed to confirm the findings and to explore the mechanisms by which acetaminophen may affect the fetal brain. They also recommended that pregnant women should be informed of the potential risks and benefits of acetaminophen use and that alternative pain management strategies should be considered.

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