Seizure Medications and Pregnancy


Both seizures and anti-seizure medications are associated with some risks. The risk of seizures is associated with seizure type. Focal seizures probably do not carry as much risk as generalized seizures. Yet, focal seizures can lead to a generalized seizure. Generalized tonic-clonic seizures are associated with increased risk to both the mother and baby. These risks include:

  • Trauma from falls or burns 
  • Increased risk of premature labor 
  • Miscarriages
  • Lowering of the baby's heart rate
  • Change in seizures

Seizure control is critical because the risks from seizures are greater than the risks from medications. 

The risk to the developing baby from anti-seizure medications taken during pregnancy is primarily that of congenital malformation or birth defects.

  • In the general population, there is a 2% to 3% occurrence of congenital malformations that cannot always be predicted or prevented.
  • In women with epilepsy, the risk is doubled to about 4% to 6%, but overall remains low. 
  • There may be a higher risk when a woman is taking more than one drug, especially if one of the medicines is valproic acid/valproate.  
  • There clearly is a genetic role, with a previous pregnancy or family history of a congenital malformation raising the risk during the current pregnancy. Genetic counseling is needed in this circumstance.
  • The most common malformations include cleft lip and clef palate (which can be surgically corrected), problems with the heart, urinary, or genital systems. 
  • Some medications, for example valproic acid/valproate, may also affect a child's development. Research continues in this area. 
  • There is limited information available on new anti-seizure medications and only slightly more on the classic anti-seizure medications.
  • Given available information, it is recommended that the most effective medication with the fewest side effects be used.
  • Most anti-seizure medications can be used safely, though some carry increased specific risks.
  • Valproate used in the first 28 days of pregnancy carries a 1% to 2% risk of neural tube defects or lack of spinal cord closure.
  • Moreover, research from the NEAD study (Neurodevelopmental Effects of Antiepileptic Drugs) found that children of women taking valproic acid during pregnancy had children with lower IQ and increased risk of autism. 
  • In the general population, the risk of birth defects is decreased by taking folate at the time when the brain and spinal cord are forming early in the first trimester of pregnancy. 
  • Although it may not be as protective in women with epilepsy, folate should be taken daily prior to becoming pregnant.  Since most women do not know they are pregnant until after the time of neural tube closure (24-28 days after conception), taking it all the time is a good idea.
  • During pregnancy, a daily multivitamin containing 0.4 mg folate, as well as an additional 1- to 4-mg folate supplement, is recommended for all women of childbearing age.
  • Selenium and zinc, contained in a multivitamin with minerals, also may be of some benefit.
  • Women with epilepsy on certain anti-seizure medications may also be asked to take Vitamin K in the last month of pregnancy to prevent rare bleeding complications in the newborn.
  • Most importantly, women should get accurate information prior to and during pregnancy.
  • See the doctor before becoming pregnant, keep regular appointments, and check blood levels during pregnancy as recommended by your healthcare team. 
  • If anti-seizure medications are not needed, multiple medications are being taken, or medications are given at high dosages, changes should be considered with a neurologist prior to a planned pregnancy.
  • The lowest possible anti-seizure medication dose that will continue to maintain seizure control is recommended.
  • Being on a single drug, monotherapy, may lower the risk of birth defects and result in fewer drug interactions, fewer side effects, and improve compliance.
  • Taking the appropriate medications as prescribed.
  • Monitoring drug levels is also very important. Anti-seizure medication levels should be checked throughout the pregnancy and following delivery.
    • The levels of all anti-seizure medications decline during pregnancy, with some being more affected than others. Dosage adjustments may be needed.
    • Since the levels then rise following delivery, monitoring in the post-partum period is also needed to minimize side effects.
  • Monitoring the baby with maternal serum-alpha-fetoprotein testing and a high resolution or level II ultrasound should be performed by the obstetrician. Epilepsy is not an indication alone for a cesarean section, and most women deliver vaginally.
  • Remember to stay healthy! 
    • Get enough rest and sleep.
    • Paying attention to nutrition with adequate weight gain and taking a multivitamin and additional folate before, during, and after pregnancy are needed.
    • Avoiding cigarettes, alcohol, and caffeine are important for all women during pregnancy.
  • Keeping all these factors in mind, the overwhelming majority of women with epilepsy will have a normal healthy baby.

While the anti-seizure medications present in breast milk, breastfeeding is encouraged.

  • Breastfeeding can generally be done safely, since the baby has been exposed to the anti-seizure medication throughout the pregnancy and the absolute amounts of drug are low.
  • The benefits of breastfeeding to the baby are also very important to consider.
  • Strategies such as taking the anti-seizure medications immediately after a feeding should be considered to minimize the amount of medication in a feeding.

Pregnancy registries have been established to help gain information.

  • All pregnant women with epilepsy are encouraged to enroll in the North American Anti-Epileptic Drug Pregnancy Registry prior to having the initial pregnancy screening to help add to our knowledge base.
  • Women outside North America are encouraged to enroll in their pregnancy registry via their neurologist.

Authored By:

Jacki Gordon PhD

on Friday, February 04, 2022

Reviewed By:

Joseph I. Sirven MD
Steven C. Schachter, MD

on Sunday, August 25, 2013


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