Giving corticosteroids to pregnant women may help save an infant’s life, but the side effects may also increase the child’s risk of suffering mental health disorders later, according to the findings of new research.
In a study published this month in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), researchers from Finland and Sweden found that children exposed to maternal corticosteroids had an increased risk of developing both mental and behavioral disorders compared to children whose mothers did not receive the treatment.
Researchers conducted a population-based retrospective cohort study including more than 670,000 children. They used data from nationwide registries of single births in Finland and compared children with sibling pregnancies born full term. Children included in the study were born between 2006 and 2017.
Overall, nearly 15,000 children were exposed to corticosteroid treatment. Among those, roughly 45% were born at term and 54% were born preterm, or before 34 weeks of pregnancy. They were compared to more than 655,000 non-exposed children. More than 96% of them were born at term while 3% were preterm.
Among all children, those who had maternal exposure to the corticosteroid had a 12% increased risk of developing any mental or behavioral disorder. Children who did not have exposure to the corticosteroid had a 6% increased risk.
Children born at term and exposed had an 8% increased risk of mental or behavioral disorders later in childhood. Siblings who were exposed to treatment had a 6.5% increased risk of developing a mental or behavioral disorder compared to their siblings who were not exposed.
Exposure to maternal antenatal corticosteroid treatment was significantly associated with mental and behavioral disorders in children.
Maternal antenatal corticosteroid treatment is standard care to accelerate fetal maturation when a baby will be born before 34 weeks. Maternal corticosteroid treatment can be lifesaving for infants born extremely preterm. It is often given to help prevent respiratory distress and help a baby born early survive the crucial first weeks. However, the long-term effects are largely unknown.
Corticosteroids are a type of drug that can cross the placenta and cross the blood-brain barrier. This means they can have a profound effect on the infant’s development.
“In this population-based cohort study, exposure to maternal antenatal corticosteroid treatment was significantly associated with mental and behavioral disorders in children,” wrote study authors. “These findings may help inform decisions about maternal antenatal corticosteroid treatment.”