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Acetaminophen use during pregnancy can impact kids' behavior, researchers warn

Acetaminophen use during pregnancy may be linked to sleep and attention problems in children at age 3, a new study suggests. Photo by Cheryl Holt/Pixabay
Acetaminophen use during pregnancy may be linked to sleep and attention problems in children at age 3, a new study suggests. Photo by Cheryl Holt/Pixabay

Sept. 29 (UPI) -- Acetaminophen is widely taken during pregnancy, but a new study warns women that it may be linked to sleep and attention problems in children. They were discovered in kids at age 3.

It's the latest research finding that the offspring of pregnant women who have taken the pain reliever -- also called paracetamol, but best known under the brand name Tylenol -- developed "neurobehavioral" problems.

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Their findings were published last Wednesday in the journal PLOS ONE.

The study's lead author said the results represent a public health concern and advised caution in using medications that contain acetaminophen while pregnant.

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"I think it is a good message to be cautious when taking acetaminophen during pregnancy," Kristin Sznajder, assistant professor of public health sciences at Penn State College of Medicine, told UPI in an email.

She added: "The science is beginning to show that there are risks to taking acetaminophen during pregnancy. However, more research would be helpful to disentangle how dose, frequency and timing ... of acetaminophen use impact child development."

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Also, she said, having a child development expert assess children's behaviors might help identify children with developmental delays more accurately.

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Sznajder said the study provides further evidence that acetaminophen use during pregnancy is associated with attention problems in young children.

And, she said, the research also has expanded on previous studies to show an association between prenatal acetaminophen use and sleep problems in 3-year-old children.

Some previous research has linked maternal use of acetaminophen during pregnancy to attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and autism.

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"Two symptoms of autism are problems with attention and asleep. Therefore, I think our findings may add to the studies on acetaminophen use during pregnancy and autism and ADHD," she said.

Sznajder said sleep and attention "are both self-regulatory behaviors," which may point to impairment of the amygdala -- a part of the brain involved in experiencing emotions -- in utero from acetaminophen use.

The study measured any use of acetaminophen up to 35 weeks, not specific doses or frequency or timing within the pregnancy.

The researchers used data from the First Baby Study in Pennsylvania, which included 2,423 mother-child pairs.

Women reported on their medication use and completed a prenatal stress inventory during their third trimester, and children's behavioral problems were measured at 3 years old using a standardized child behavior checklist.

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According to Sznajder, "We wanted to test the hypothesis that we could see developmental problems in children as young as 3. This is the age children are beginning preschool and when some children begin showing signs of attention problems."

Of the total, 1,011 women, or 41.7%, reported using acetaminophen during pregnancy. And children who were exposed to acetaminophen -- which has been shown to cross the placental barrier -- during pregnancy scored significantly higher on three of the seven syndrome scales: being withdrawn and having sleep and attention problems.

After adjusting for prenatal stress and other variables, two syndrome scales remained significantly higher in children exposed to acetaminophen: sleep and attention problems.

Sznajder noted that the researchers did find an independent association between stress and child development.

"Stress is an important factor that could affect child development," she said. "But what we are also hoping communicate is that even after taking stress into account, we still found an independent association between acetaminophen, attention and sleep problems."

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