19 September 2019

This common medication can cause behavioural problems in children if taken during pregnancy

A new study has linked paracetamol intake during pregnancy with potential behavioural and cognitive problems during childhood.

Paracetamol, a common painkiller, which is deemed safe to take during pregnancy, has been associated with potentially adverse behavioural and cognitive outcomes such as hyperactivity and attention deficiency in childhood, according to a report.

The research was conducted by the University of Bristol and emphasised why it’s important to be cautious when taking medication during pregnancy. The study was published in the journal Paediatric and Perinatal Epidemiology, and investigated whether paracetamol intake could be linked to any cognitive and behavioural problems later in the unborn child’s life.

This was a large cohort study of children aged between six months and 11 years. These children also had their memories and IQ tested until the age of 17.

According to the news report, the team used data collected by the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children (ALSPAC) at 32 weeks gestation that referred to the 18 to 32 weeks gestation period.

At 32 weeks, 43.9% of women were identified as having taken paracetamol “sometimes” or on a more frequent basis during the previous three months.

Link between paracetamol and ADHD symptoms

The study identified a link between the use of paracetamol during pregnancy and difficult behaviour in the child such as hyperactivity and attention problems. This was based on behaviour reported by the mothers when the children where almost four years old.

But, these problems seem to have become a thing of the past when they reached the ages of seven and eight, according to reports by mothers and teachers.

Jean Golding, the lead author of the study, said that the study still emphasised the importance of responsible use of medication during pregnancy, and that the results of the study needed to be tested further to show a causal link.

It seems that the behavioural problems in this case were only present in the early preschool years, but it would be interesting to see and useful to assess whether these children will be completely free of problems in their adolescent and adult years.

So, what medication can mothers take?

The NHS in the UK, as well as the Self-Medication Manufacturers Association of South Africa (SMASA, as told to Parent24), suggest that paracetamol is a safe painkiller to take during pregnancy, but that mothers-to-be should seek medical advice before taking any medication. Paracetamol is also the medication of choice for the treatment of mild fevers.

Image credit: iStock


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Dr Renata Schoeman has been in full-time private practice as a general psychiatrist (child, adolescent and adult psychiatry) since 2008, currently based in Oude Westhof (Bellville). Renata also holds appointments as senior lecturer in Leadership (USB) and as a virtual faculty member of USB Executive Development’s Neuroleadership programme. She serves on the advisory boards of various pharmaceutical companies, as a director of the Psychiatric Management Group (PsychMG) and is the co-convenor of the South African Society of Psychiatrist (SASOP) special interest group for adult ADHD, and co-founder of the Goldilocks and The Bear Foundation ( She is passionate about corporate mental health awareness and uses her neuroscience background to assist leaders in equipping them to become balanced, healthy and dynamic leaders that take their own and their team’s emotional, intellectual, social health and physical needs into account. Renata is academically active and enjoys research and collaborative work, has published in many peer-reviewed journals, and has presented at local and international congresses. She is regularly invited to present at conferences and to engage with the media. During her post-graduate studies, she trained at Harvard, Boston in neurocognition and neuroimaging. Her awards include, amongst others, the Young Minds in Psychiatry award from the American Psychiatric Association, the Discovery Foundation Fellowship award, a Thuthuka award from the NRF, and a MRC Fellowship. She also received the Top MBA student award and the Director’s award from USB for 2015. She was a finalist for the Businesswomen’s Association of South Africa’s Businesswoman of the Year Award for 2016, and received the Excellence in Media Work award from SASOP during 2016.

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