Drugs, Pregnancy & Lactation

Bipolar disorder during pregnancy: Lessons learned


Careful management of bipolar disorder during pregnancy is critical because for so many patients with this illness, the road to emotional well-being has been a long one, requiring a combination of careful pharmacologic and nonpharmacologic strategies.

A pregnant woman takes pills KatarzynaBialasiewicz/thinkstockphotos

Half of referrals to our Center for Women’s Mental Health – where we evaluate and treat women before, during, and after pregnancy – are for women who have histories of bipolar disorder. My colleagues and I are asked at continuing medical education programs what we “always do” and “never do” with respect to the treatment of these patients.

What about discontinuation of mood stabilizers during pregnancy and risk of relapse?

We never abruptly stop mood stabilizers if a patient has an unplanned pregnancy – a common scenario, with 50% of pregnancies across the country being unplanned across sociodemographic lines – save for sodium valproate, which is a clearly a documented teratogen; it increases risk for organ malformation and behavioral difficulties in exposed offspring. In our center, we typically view the use of sodium valproate in reproductive age women as contraindicated.

One may then question the circumstances under which lithium might be used during pregnancy, because many clinicians are faced with patients who have been exquisite responders to lithium. Such a patient may present with a history of mania, but there are obvious concerns given the historical literature, and even some more recent reports, that describe an increased risk of teratogenicity with fetal exposure to lithium.

Maintenance pharmacotherapy for women with bipolar disorder during pregnancy is so important, not only to decrease the risk of relapse following discontinuation of mood stabilizers, but because recurrence of illness during pregnancy for these patients is a very strong predictor of risk for postpartum depression. Women with bipolar disorder already are at a fivefold increased risk for postpartum depression, so discussion of sustaining euthymia during pregnancy for bipolar women is particularly timely given the focus nationally on treatment and prevention of postpartum depression.

In patients with history of mania, what about stopping treatment with lithium and other effective treatments during pregnancy?

Historically, we sometimes divided patients with bipolar disorder into those with “more severe recurrent disease” compared with those with more distant, circumscribed disease. In patients with more remote histories of mood dysregulation, we tended to discontinue treatment with mood stabilizers such as lithium or even newer second-generation atypical antipsychotics to see if patients could at least get through earlier stages of pregnancy before going back on anti-manic treatment.

Our experience now over several decades has revealed that this can be a risky clinical move. What we see is that even in patients with histories of mania years in the past (i.e., a circumscribed episode of mania during college in a woman now 35 years old with intervening sustained well-being), discontinuation of treatment that got patients well can lead to recurrence. Hence, we should not confuse an exquisite response to treatment with long periods of well-being as suggesting that the patient has a less severe form of bipolar disorder and hence the capacity to sustain that well-being when treatment is removed.


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