Giving steroid injections
to pregnant women before premature birth may increase the child's risk of
developing attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder and other behavioural and
emotional disorders, a small study suggests.
Pregnant women who are
expected to give birth prematurely often receive glucocorticoids, which mimic
the natural hormone cortisol. This treatment is important to help a premature
baby's lungs mature, the researchers explained.
However, their findings
suggest that steroid injections may also increase a child's risk of developing
ADHD and other mental health problems.
Children with ADHD have
trouble paying attention and following through on tasks. They may also talk
excessively and behave impulsively.
The study included 37
children whose mothers were given synthetic glucocorticoids before they gave
birth and 185 children who were born at the same gestational age but were not
exposed to glucocorticoids.
At ages 8 and 16, the
children who were exposed to glucocorticoids before birth had poorer scores on
general mental health and were more likely to have symptoms of ADHD, compared
to the other children.
Stress in pregnancy
The findings were confirmed
in a comparison group of more than 6 000 children, according to the study,
published in the journal PLoS One.
"There are a lot of
studies that have found links between stress in pregnancy and effects on
children's mental health, especially ADHD, and this might be related to
cortisol," study senior author Alina Rodriguez, a visiting professor at
the School of Public Health at Imperial College London in England, said in a
college news release.
glucocorticoids mimic the biological reaction when the mother is stressed, so
we wanted to see if babies who were exposed to this treatment are affected
similarly in terms of mental health outcomes," she explained.
Although the findings
suggest that the use of glucocorticoids may pose long-term risks to children's
mental health, they don't prove a cause-and-effect relationship. The number of
children in the study who were exposed to glucocorticoids was relatively small,
and more studies are needed to confirm the findings, Rodriguez noted.
"We would like to
reassure parents that in light of all available evidence to date, the benefits
of steroid treatment on immediate infant health and survival are
well-established and outweigh any possible risk of long-term behavioural/emotional
difficulties," she said. Parents who are concerned that their child might
have behavioural or emotional difficulties should contact their child's doctor,
The US National Institute
of Child Health and Human Development has more about preterm labour and birth.