A new study has found that use of acetaminophen – the active ingredient in Tylenol, aka paracetamol – during pregnancy could contribute to attention and sleep problems in offspring by age 3. The study added their findings to a growing body of evidence that the painkiller should be avoided during pregnancy, after previous concerns suggested childhood neurobehavioral problems after its use.
The researchers say that the drug could be used to help with the many complications of pregnancy, but it could actually be doing more harm than good.
“Pregnant people experience pain, fever and other ailments that could be alleviated through the use of acetaminophen,” said Kristin Sznajder, a Huck Institutes of the Life Sciences researcher and author of the paper, in a statement.
“While the medication may provide relief in the moment, research increasingly indicates there may be downstream effects that could be detrimental to child development. More research is needed so appropriate recommendations can be made to pregnant people.”
To delve further into the suspected link, researchers from Penn State College of Medicine took a cohort of 2,400 pregnant people and followed them from the third trimester of pregnancy, all the way to their child being three years of age. During the pregnancy, their medication habits were noted and surveys were filled out to assess their stress.
The participants were regularly interviewed. Then, at three years post-pregnancy, they filled out a questionnaire that asked them to rank their child from 1-3 on a variety of neurobehavioral metrics. These included not sitting still, being unable to look people in the eyes, and more.
From there, analysis was done on the data to discover whether parents that took acetaminophen (of which 41.7 percent of the participants did during pregnancy) and any neurobehavioural problems in the children. Cofounding variables were accounted for, including reasons why the women would use the drug, such as depression and anxiety.
The results showed a small but significant increase in children with neurobehavioral problems in the acetaminophen group, with 22.7 percent having sleep problems and 32.9 percent having attention problems, while the non-acetaminophen group reported 18.9 percent and 28 percent respectively.
Added to previous results, this study suggests that the drug may be contributing to some neurobehavioral problems in children, but it remains unclear how. The researchers acknowledge that more research into dosage amount and an accurate assessment of child behavior is needed to fully understand the results, and hope better understanding can come from future studies.
“We should interpret these results with some degree of caution,” Sznajder said. “Although acetaminophen is generally considered safe for use during pregnancy, data from multiple studies suggest that there could be effects on childhood development by its use. It’s important we learn as much as we can about this subject so we can give expecting mothers data-driven recommendations to care for their children and themselves.”
The study was published in PLOS One.