BERLIN – In the changing multiple sclerosis landscape, more women are having babies, and more are asking questions. With these women, what’s the best way to address the complicated interplay among pregnancy, relapse risk, breastfeeding, and medication resumption? A starting point is to recognize that “women with MS are very different today than they were 25 years ago,” said . Not only have diagnostic criteria changed but also highly effective treatments now exist that were not available when the first pregnancy cohorts were studied, she pointed out, speaking at the annual congress of the European Committee on Treatment and Research in Multiple Sclerosis.
The existing literature, said Dr. Langer-Gould, has addressed one controversy: “Most women with MS can have normal pregnancies – and breastfeed – without incurring harm,” though it’s true that severe rebound relapses are possible if natalizumab () or fingolimod ( ) are stopped before pregnancy. In any case, new small-molecule MS medications need to be stopped during pregnancy and breastfeeding, she pointed out. “We didn’t have to worry about that too much when we only had injectables and monoclonal antibodies because they were larger and didn’t cross the placenta.”
Since the 1980s, the conversation about pregnancy and MS has moved from asking “Is pregnancy bad for women with MS?” to the current MS landscape, in which sicker women are able to become pregnant, Dr. Langer-Gould said, adding that how women with MS fare through pregnancy and in the postpartum period is changing over time as well. She and her colleagues’ experience with pregnancy in a cohort of women with MS in the Kaiser Permanente care system, where she is a clinical neurologist and regional research lead, revealed a relapse rate of 8.4%. “So it was pretty rare for a woman to have a relapse during pregnancy,” Dr. Langer-Gould said.
Most women with MS who become pregnant, whether their care is received in a referral center or is community based, are now doing so while on a disease-modifying therapy (DMT), Dr. Langer-Gould said. On these highly effective treatments, “women who were too sick to get pregnant are now well controlled and having babies.”
As more women with MS become pregnant, more conversations about breastfeeding will inevitably crop up, she said. And the discussion about breastfeeding has now begun to acknowledge the “strong benefits to mom and the baby of not just breastfeeding, but longer breastfeeding,” as well.
“Because of this baby-friendly push in a lot of hospitals in the United States, where they’re trying to encourage all women to breastfeed,” a full 87% of women breastfed their infants at least some of the time, and over a third of women (35%) breastfed exclusively for at least 2 months, Dr. Langer-Gould said.
“There’s no one clear explanation of why the women seem to be healthier and doing better through pregnancy as a group, but it’s probably a combination of having milder disease, breastfeeding more, and they’ve got better controlled disease before pregnancy,” she said.
At least eight studies to date have examined the relationship between postpartum MS relapses and breastfeeding, Dr. Langer-Gould said.
“The thing to take away ... is that, even though we’ve studied this many, many times, no one can show that it’s harmful,” she said. For mothers who want to breastfeed, “you can support them in the breastfeeding choice, because they are not going to have more severe disease because of that.”
Whether breastfeeding is exclusive or not has not always been tracked in studies of childbearing women with MS, but when it was captured in the data, exclusive breastfeeding has exerted a protective effect, with about a 50% reduction in risk for postpartum relapse seen in one study ().
There is a hormonal rationale for exclusive breastfeeding exerting a protective effect on MS: With exclusive breastfeeding comes more frequent, intense suckling, with more profound elevations in prolactin, and larger drops in follicle-stimulating hormone, luteinizing hormone, progesterone, and estradiol. All these hormonal changes work together to produce more prolonged amenorrhea and anovulation, Dr. Langer-Gould said, with potentially beneficial immunologic effects.
When other, more general maternal and infant health benefits of breastfeeding also are taken into account, there’s strong evidence for the benefits of breastfeeding for women with MS whose medication profile allows them to breastfeed, she said.
However, the “treatment” effect of exclusive breastfeeding is only effective until the infant starts taking regular supplemental feedings, including the introduction of table food at around 6 months of age. “Once regular supplemental feedings are introduced, relapses return,” Dr. Langer-Gould said.
There is some suggestion that, in women without MS, prolonged breastfeeding may be associated with reduced risk of MS. In the MS Sunshine study, breastfeeding for 15 months or longer decreased the risk of later MS by 23%-53% (). The investigators, led by Dr. Langer-Gould, summed the total months of breastfeeding across all children, so that the 15-month threshold could be reached by breastfeeding one child for 15 months, or three children for 5 months each. “It’s a single study; I wouldn’t make too much out of it,” Dr. Langer-Gould said.
Open questions still remain, she said: “So far, no one has been able to demonstrate a clear beneficial effect in reducing the risk of postpartum relapse if they resume their DMT early in the postpartum period.” Dr. Langer-Gould noted that the literature in this area is hampered by heterogeneity and by the fact that newer, more highly active DMTs have not been well studied.
Also, the link between postpartum relapses and long-term prognosis is not completely delineated. Indirect evidence, she said, points to a postpartum relapse as being “overall, a low-impact event.”
Dr. Langer-Gould reported that she has been the site principal investigator for clinical trials sponsored by Roche and Biogen.
SOURCE: Langer-Gould A. ECTRIMS 2018, .