Psychiatric Medications for Children, Pregnant Women and the Elderly


The information provided below is intended to provide basic information about mental health medications. It is not a complete source for all medications available and should not be used as a guide for making medical decisions.

All types of people take psychiatric medications and need to have their personal needs and responses assessed by a doctor, but some groups have special needs, including:

• Children and adolescents

• Older adults

• Women who are pregnant or who may become pregnant

Children and Adolescents

Many medications used to treat children and adolescents with mental illness are safe and effective.

In addition to medications, other treatments for children and adolescents should be considered, either to be tried first, with medication added later if necessary, or to be provided along with medication. Psychotherapy, family therapy, educational courses, and behaviour management techniques can help everyone involved cope with disorders that affect a child’s mental health. 

Older Adults

People over 65 must be careful when taking medications, especially when they’re taking many different drugs. Older adults have a higher risk for experiencing bad drug interactions, missing doses, or overdosing. It is important that you disclose all the medications you are on, and any health concerns, with your treating doctor

Older adults also tend to be more sensitive to medications. Even healthy older people react to medications differently than younger people because older people's bodies process and eliminate medications more slowly. Therefore, lower or less frequent doses may be needed for older adults. Before starting a medication, older people and their family members should talk carefully with a physician about whether a medication can affect alertness, memory, or coordination, and how to help ensure that prescribed medications do not increase the risk of falls.

Sometimes memory problems affect older people who take medications for mental disorders. An older adult may forget his or her regular dose and take too much or not enough. 

Women who are pregnant or who may become pregnant

The research on the use of psychiatric medications during pregnancy is limited. The risks are different depending on which medication is taken, and at what point during the pregnancy the medication is taken and the risks associated with the particular mental disorder in question. Decisions on treatments for all conditions during pregnancy should be based on each woman's needs and circumstances and based on a careful weighing of the likely benefits and risks of all available options, including, medication, or a combination of the two. While no medication is considered perfectly safe for all women at all stages of pregnancy, this must be balanced for each woman against the fact that untreated serious mental disorders themselves can pose a risk to a pregnant woman and her developing foetus. Medications should be selected based on available scientific research, and they should be taken at the lowest effective dose. Pregnant women should have a medical professional who will watch them closely throughout their pregnancy and after delivery.

Most women should avoid certain medications during pregnancy. For example:

• Mood stabilizers are known to cause birth defects. Benzodiazepines and lithium have been shown to cause "floppy baby syndrome," in which a baby is drowsy and limp, and cannot breathe or feed well. Benzodiazepines may cause birth defects or other infant problems, especially if taken during the first trimester.

• According to research, taking antipsychotic medications during pregnancy can lead to birth defects, especially if they are taken during the first trimester and in combination with other drugs, but the risks vary widely and depend on the type of antipsychotic taken. The conventional antipsychotic haloperidol has been studied more than others and has been found not to cause birth defects. Research on the newer atypical antipsychotics is ongoing.

Antidepressants, especially SSRIs, are considered to be safe during pregnancy. However, antidepressant medications do cross the placental barrier and may reach the foetus. Birth defects or other problems are possible, but they are very rare. The effects of antidepressants on childhood development remain under study.

Studies have also found that foetuses exposed to SSRIs during the third trimester may be born with "withdrawal" symptoms such as breathing problems, jitteriness, irritability, trouble feeding, or hypoglycemia (low blood sugar). Most studies have found that these symptoms in babies are generally mild and short-lived, and no deaths have been reported. Risks from the use of antidepressants need to be balanced with the risks of stopping medication; if a mother is too depressed to care for herself and her child, both may be at risk for problems.

After the baby is born, women and their doctors should watch for postpartum depression, especially if a mother stopped taking her medication during pregnancy. In addition, women who nurse while taking psychiatric medications should know that a small amount of the medication passes into the breast milk. However, the medication may or may not affect the baby depending on the medication and when it is taken. Women taking psychiatric medications and who intend to breastfeed should discuss the potential risks and benefits with their doctors.

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