During pregnancy, it is natural and normal for all women to be highly concerned about the health of their babies and their own health. However, many women with epilepsy may feel extra concern given the link between seizure medications and birth defects and other complications. Keep in mind that the Epilepsy Foundation says “the overwhelming majority of women with epilepsy will have a normal and healthy baby” and try to enjoy this period of your life as much as possible. These tips and guidelines from the Epilepsy Foundation may help answer some of the questions most frequently asked by women who have epilepsy and are pregnant.
What birth defects are associated with seizure medications during pregnancy?
According to the Epilepsy Foundation, the risk of having a child with a birth defect doubles from 2-3% to 4-6% when a woman uses anti-seizure medications during pregnancy. Birth defects most commonly associated with epilepsy medications include:
- Oral cleft (cleft lip or cleft palate)
- Urinary system defects
- Heart defects
- Genital defects
- Spina bifida
Additionally, a child’s development may be affected by exposure to epilepsy medications in the womb. Lower IQ and autism may also be linked to use of anti-seizure medications during pregnancy.
The anti-seizure medication valproic acid or valproate (Depakote) has been most heavily linked to birth defects, especially when combined with other epilepsy medications.
Should I stop taking epilepsy medications when I am pregnant?
Women who rely on anti-seizure medications to treat epilepsy need to remember that while many of these drugs have been linked to serious birth defects, having a seizure while pregnant can also be very dangerous to both mother and baby. Also, abruptly stopping use of epilepsy medications can bring on seizures. Because of this, the Epilepsy Foundation recommends that women speak candidly with their doctors about their wishes to become pregnant if they have epilepsy. Most birth defects form early in pregnancy when many women don’t yet realize they are expecting, so it may be more important for women with epilepsy to plan their pregnancies so that they can adjust medications and doses accordingly.
Women who have epilepsy can lower their risk of having a child with a birth defect by taking the smallest beneficial dose of anti-seizure medications and taking as few medications as possible. It is also important to monitor levels of epilepsy drugs throughout pregnancy, as dosages may need to be adjusted as the pregnancy progresses.
In addition to the risk of birth defects associated with anti-seizure medications, are there other risks associated with pregnancy in women with epilepsy?
Yes. A recent study found that women with epilepsy are more likely to die during childbirth than women who don’t have this condition. However, this is still very rare, and in a US News & World Report article detailing the results of this study, neurology professor Dr. Jacqueline French states, “If you have epilepsy, the great likelihood is that you are going to have a healthy, normal pregnancy and delivery.”
In addition to a slightly higher rate of maternal death during delivery, epilepsy during pregnancy may also raise the risk of:
- Premature birth
- Low birth weight
- Injuries to mother or baby during a seizure, including injuries from falls or burn injuries
- Changes to mother’s seizures
What steps can I take to have a safer pregnancy with epilepsy?
First and foremost, all pregnant women need to stay as health as possible during pregnancy. This means eating right, getting enough sleep, and exercising, as well as avoiding known toxins like cigarettes and alcohol.
Additionally, taking a multi-vitamin and getting enough folate (folic acid) may help prevent some complications and birth defects. Women who take some anti-seizure drugs may also be instructed to take Vitamin K during their third trimester to prevent possible bleeding complications.
What if my child has a birth defect I believe was caused by my epilepsy medication?
According to experts, the vast majority of women who have epilepsy have healthy pregnancies and healthy babies. However, if the unexpected happens and you or your baby suffer from anti-seizure drug side effects including birth defects, you need to know that you may be entitled to hold drug makers responsible for your suffering. For more information, please contact a seizure drug birth defect attorney today to schedule a free legal consultation.