Roughly one in thirty adult women have ADHD. Research results indicate that psychostimulants (methylphenidate and amphetamines) offer the most effective course of treatment in most instances. But during pregnancy, such treatment also exposes the fetus to these drugs.
Several studies have set out to determine whether such exposure is harmful. The largest compared 5,571 infants exposed to amphetamines and 2,072 exposed to methylphenidate with unexposed infants. It found no increased risks for adverse outcomes due to amphetamine or methylphenidate exposures.
Another study studied 3,331 infants exposed to amphetamines, 1,515 exposed to methylphenidate, and 453 to atomoxetine. Comparing these infants to unexposed infants, it found a slightly increased risk of preeclampsia, with an adjusted risk ratio of 1.29 (95% CI 1.11-1.49), but no statistically significant effect for placental abruption, small gestational age, and preterm birth. When assessing the two stimulants, amphetamine and methylphenidate, together, it found a small increased risk of preterm birth, with an adjusted risk ratio of 1.3 (95% CI 1.10-1.55). There was no statistically significant effect for preeclampsia, placental abruption, or small gestational age. Atomoxetine use was free of any indication of increased risk.
Another study involving 1,591 infants exposed to ADHD medication (mostly methylphenidate) during pregnancy, reported increased risks associated with exposure. The adjusted odds ratio for admission to a neonatal intensive care unit was 1.5 (95% CI 1.3-1.7), and for central nervous system disorders was 1.9 (95% CI 1.1-3.1). There was no increased risk for congenital malformations or perinatal death.
Six studies focused on methylphenidate exposure. Two, with a combined total of 402 exposed infants, found no increased risk for malformations. Another, with 208 exposed infants, found a slightly greater risk of cardiovascular malformations, but it was not statistically significant. A fourth, with 186 exposed infants, found no increased risk of malformations, but did find a higher rate of miscarriage, with an adjusted hazard ratio of 1.98 (95% CI 1.23-3.20). A fifth, with 480 exposed infants, also found a higher rate of miscarriage, with an odds ratio of 2.07 (95% CI 1.51-2.84). But although the sixth, with 382 exposed infants, likewise found an increased risk of miscarriage (adjusted relative risk 1.55 with 95% CI 1.03-2.06), it also found an identical risk for women with ADHD who were not on medication during their pregnancies (adjusted relative risk 1.56 with 95% CI 1.11-2.20). That finding suggests that all women with ADHD have a higher risk of miscarriage, and that methylphenidate exposure is not the causal factor.
Summing up, while some studies have shown increased adverse effects among infants exposed to maternal ADHD medications, most have not. There are indications that higher rates of miscarriage are associated with maternal ADHD rather than fetal exposure to psychostimulant medications. One study did find a small increased risk of central nervous system disorders and admission to a neonatal intensive care unit. But, again, we do not know whether that was due to exposure to psychostimulant medication, or associated with maternal ADHD.
If there is a risk, it appears to be a small one. The question then becomes how to balance that as yet uncertain risk against the disadvantage of discontinuing effective psychostimulant medication. As the authors of this review conclude:
It is associated with significant psychiatric comorbidities for women, including depression, anxiety, substance use disorders, driving safety impairment, and occupational impairment. The gold standard treatment includes behavioral therapy and stimulant medication, namely methylphenidate and amphetamine derivatives. Psychostimulant use during pregnancy continues to increase and has been associated with a small increased relative risk of a range of obstetric concerns. However, the absolute increases in risks are small, and many of the best studies to date are confounded by other medication use and medical comorbidities. Thus, women with moderate-to-severe ADHD should not necessarily be counseled to suspend their ADHD treatment based on these findings.
They advise that when functional impairment from ADHD is moderate to severe, the benefits of stimulant medications may outweigh the small known and unknown risks of medication exposure, and that “If a decision is made to take ADHD medication, women should be informed of the known risks and benefits of the medication use in pregnancy, and take the lowest therapeutic dose possible.”
Allison S. Baker, Marlene P. Freeman, “Management of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder During Pregnancy,” Obstetrics and Gynecology Clinics of North America, vol. 45, issue 3 (2018), 495-509.