Behavioral Health

Postpartum anxiety: More common than you think

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SSRIs in pregnancy. Lacking support of randomized controlled trials, most recommendations regarding SSRIs in pregnancy come from expert consensus or cohort and case control studies. Studies have raised concerns for an increased rate of congenital heart defects among fetuses exposed to paroxetine32 and primary pulmonary hypertension with all SSRIs.33 But the absolute risks are quite small. There have also been concerns regarding low birth weight and preterm birth, but it is possible that these outcomes result from the depression itself rather than the medication.34

Many experts believe that not treating anxiety/ depression is more harmful than the fetal effects of SSRIs.

Unfortunately, there are very few studies evaluating the efficacy of SSRIs in treating postpartum depression35 and even fewer that specifically evaluate their effect on perinatal anxiety. Many experts believe that not treating anxiety/depression is actually more harmful than the fetal effects of SSRIs, and that SSRIs are largely safe in both pregnancy and while breastfeeding, with benefits outweighing the risks.

SSRIs while breastfeeding. SSRIs have been found to be present in varying levels in breastmilk but may or may not be present in the serum of nursing infants.36 A 2008 guideline from the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists lists paroxetine, sertraline, and fluvoxamine as slightly safer than fluoxetine, escitalopram, and citalopram.37 A 2015 systematic review similarly concluded that sertraline and paroxetine have the most safety data on lactation.38 Lowest effective dose is always recommended to minimize exposure.

Benzodiazepines. As in the general population, benzodiazepines should be reserved for short-term use in acute anxiety and panic because they are associated with such adverse effects as worsening of depression/anxiety and risk of dependence and overdose. Longer-acting benzodiazepines (eg, clonazepam) are generally not recommended in lactation because of reported effects on infants, including sedation. Shorter-acting benzodiazepines (eg, lorazepam) are considered safer in lactation.39


Julia saw her family physician 4 more times, was evaluated by an ear-nose-and-throat specialist for her throat complaints, saw a therapist for CBT and a psychiatrist for medication, had 3 more ED visits, and lost 23 pounds before she finally agreed to start an SSRI for postpartum anxiety. She screened high on the EPDS-3A (9/9) despite scoring low on the full EPDS for perinatal depression (total, 9/30).

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