Every year in the US, approximately 20,000 women with a seizure disorder give birth. Most of these pregnancies are healthy. But there are a few additional concerns that women who have epilepsy must consider when thinking about getting pregnant.
What is epilepsy?
Epilepsy is a brain disorder in which a person has repeated seizures over time. Seizures are episodes of disturbed brain activity that cause changes in attention or behavior. Epilepsy is a specific type of seizure disorder.
People with epilepsy are usually prescribed medication to help to control seizures. These are known as antiepileptic drugs (AEDs). There are a number of different types of AEDs and they are prescribed depending on age, the type of seizure, and the side effects of the medications. Some individuals with epilepsy may need more than one AED to control their seizures.
Can epilepsy cause problems during pregnancy?
If you have epilepsy and are thinking about getting pregnant, there are a few important things that you need to consider.
- Women who have epilepsy have an increased chance to have a baby with a birth defect compared to women who do not have epilepsy. This may be the result of the epilepsy or the AEDs used to control seizures. Some AEDs have been associated with an increased risk of cleft lip and palate, neural tube defects, and heart defects.
- Pregnancy can cause a change in the number of seizures. Most women with epilepsy will have no change in the number of seizures they experience or they will have fewer seizures during pregnancy. A few women will experience more seizures.
Controlling seizures during pregnancy is very important. Having a seizure during pregnancy can cause problems for you and your baby. Seizures during pregnancy can cause:
- Decreased oxygen to the baby and fetal heart rate deceleration during the seizure.
- Injury to the baby as a result of any falls or trauma experienced during the seizure. This can include premature separation of the placenta from the uterus (placental abruption) or miscarriage.
- Preterm labor
- Premature birth
Should you continue to take anti-seizure medications during pregnancy?
Many women with epilepsy are concerned about taking their AEDs during pregnancy. But according to ACOG, “Because there are serious risks associated with having a seizure during pregnancy and because the potential risk of harm to your baby from taking AEDs is small, experts recommend that seizures be controlled with AEDs, if necessary, during pregnancy. However, the type, amount, or number of AEDs that you take may need to change.”
Will you need any special care during your pregnancy?
One of the most important things that any woman can do to have a healthy pregnancy is to schedule a preconception checkup. If you have epilepsy, it is important to talk to your prenatal care provider as well as your neurologist prior to getting pregnant. Here are some other things to consider:
- Review your seizure medications with both your prenatal provider and your neurologist. If changes need to be made, it is better to do this prior to getting pregnant.
- Take a prenatal vitamin with folic acid. Talk to your health care team about how much folic acid is right for you.
- Eat a healthy diet, get enough sleep, and avoid cigarettes, alcohol.
- Plan for additional visits to your health care providers. Medication levels will need to be monitored to make sure they stay consistent.
- Talk to a genetic counselor about prenatal testing.
- Most women with a seizure disorder can have a vaginal birth.
- Women with epilepsy are encouraged to breastfeed. Talk to your health care team.
If you have epilepsy, planning and working with your health care team can help to ensure that you have the healthiest pregnancy possible.
Questions? Send them to AskUs@marchofdimes.org.