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Respiratory Distress Birth Defect

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When antidepressants are taken during pregnancy, babies can be born with respiratory problems that make it difficult to breathe.

In general, about 7 percent of newborn babies experience respiratory distress, or trouble breathing. But for babies born to mothers who took an antidepressant during the third trimester, the number can escalate.

In its prescribing information, the manufacturer of Prozac — Eli Lilly & Company — actually warns patients that babies exposed to the antidepressant in the third trimester have developed respiratory distress.

Women who took Prozac, Paxil, Zoloft or another antidepressant during pregnancy and had a child born with a birth defect or who later developed related complications, have sued the manufacturers.

Respiratory distress occurs when a baby's need for oxygen is greater than what his or her immature system can provide. These babies typically display a cluster of symptoms, including:
Hypoglycemia (low blood sugar) Temperature instability
Poor feeding Insomnia or somnolence (oversleeping)
Irritability Flaring nostrils
Grunting

Respiratory Distress Linked to Antidepressants

Researchers have found that many infants with mothers who took selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) during pregnancy have a set of neurobehavioral deficiencies called neonatal adaptation syndrome, neonatal abstinence syndrome or neonatal withdrawal syndrome.

No matter which name the cluster of symptoms goes by, they are characterized by breathing problems.

Respiratory distress syndrome (RDS) is a specific type of breathing difficulty that usually occurs in infants who are born prematurely, because the lungs have not completely developed. In 2009, a National Institute of Mental Health study found that antidepressant use during pregnancy was linked to babies being delivered before they reach full-term, but the risk was low.

When babies are born full term, their lungs are lined with a slippery substance called surfactant that helps the lungs inflate. Less developed lungs do not contain an adequate coating. It follows, then, that the earlier a baby is born, the higher the risk of developing RDS.

Doctors can treat babies with RDS by increasing the oxygen levels either through a nasal tube or a ventilator. Both methods have to be closely monitored because too much oxygen can cause blindness and too much pressure can further damage the baby's lungs. Drugs that mimic the natural surfactant also can be administered through a tube in the baby's windpipe.

Severe respiratory distress could be a symptom of a more serious condition called persistent pulmonary hypertension of the newborn (PPHN).