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Year : 2022  |  Volume : 54  |  Issue : 6  |  Page : 443--451

Pharmacological treatment of bipolar disorder in pregnancy: An update on safety considerations

Swarndeep Singh1, Raman Deep2,  
1 Department of Psychiatry, All India Institute of Medical Sciences, New Delhi; Department of Psychiatry, Government Medical College and Hospital, Chandigarh, India
2 Department of Psychiatry, All India Institute of Medical Sciences, New Delhi, India

Correspondence Address:
Raman Deep
Department of Psychiatry, All India Institute of Medical Sciences, New Delhi - 110 029


Pregnancy in women with bipolar disorder (BD) can be considered a high-risk pregnancy in view of several clinical and pharmacotherapeutic considerations. Pharmacological treatment during pregnancy requires a careful weighing of psychotropic drug exposure against the risk of BD relapse. An untreated bipolar illness can negatively affect the health of mother as well as unborn child in the event of a relapse. Availability of well balanced, latest information on safety of prophylactic drugs for BD is crucial for making informed decisions. The review provides an evidence-based update (2015–2021) on the drug safety considerations involved in providing care for women with BD who are either pregnant or planning to conceive in near future. Literature review based on systematic reviews, meta-analyses, and data available from studies based on large-scale cohorts and birth registries has been synthesized and presented along with clinically relevant recommendations.

How to cite this article:
Singh S, Deep R. Pharmacological treatment of bipolar disorder in pregnancy: An update on safety considerations.Indian J Pharmacol 2022;54:443-451

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Singh S, Deep R. Pharmacological treatment of bipolar disorder in pregnancy: An update on safety considerations. Indian J Pharmacol [serial online] 2022 [cited 2023 May 29 ];54:443-451
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Bipolar disorder (BD) is a severe mood disorder, with an episodic course with varying intervals of remission lasting months or years. Globally, BD has a lifetime prevalence of 1% in representative community samples, with rates close to 4%–5% after inclusion of bipolar spectrum and other subthreshold conditions.[1] Moreover, the typical age of onset for BD is in the early twenties and course is characterized by multiple, recurrent episodes. This leads to substantial overlap with periods of pregnancy and childbirths in affected women.[2] The reproductive milestones increase the risk of relapses because of medication discontinuation, hormonal factors, or other well-known triggers of BD (e.g. sleep deprivation).[2],[3],[4] The continuation of medication prophylaxis for BD in pregnant women is associated with several clinical and ethical considerations. Management of BD in pregnant women requires careful weighing of risks to the unborn fetus against the risk of relapse of BD. Thus, the provision of readily available, well-balanced, and evidence-based information is crucial in making right informed decisions.

Few prior reviews[5],[6],[7] had focused on the safety of psychotropic agents used in the management of BD among pregnant women. The reviews by Epstein et al.[5] and Scrandis[6] included studies available till December 2013 and January 2017, respectively. In light of several newer large-observational studies and meta-analyses in the past 5 years, there is a need to provide an updated review of available literature. The review by Clark[7] is relatively recent but had not focused on antidepressants and anti-anxiety medications, which are frequently co-prescribed in acute care of patients with BD during bipolar depression. It will be useful to focus on all medications which are potentially used in both acute and chronic care of pregnant women with BD.

With this background, this review aims to provide an evidence-based update on the treatment considerations in care for pregnant women or those who are planning to conceive in near future.

Search strategy

A systematic search based on PubMed/Medline database was conducted for time period between January 2015 and July 2021. The search strategy employed consisted of MeSH terms and Boolean operators as described in [Box 1]. We restricted PubMed search to include systematic reviews, meta-analyses, and comparative and observational studies. Studies conducted on animals and whose full text was not available in English language were excluded.[INLINE:1]

A total of 158 articles were obtained on PubMed search, of which 49 (17 meta-analyses, 18 systematic reviews, and 14 observational studies) were included for further review after manually screening their title/abstract to assess their relevance. Further, the cross-references of select articles were searched for suitable articles of importance. In addition, Google Scholar search was carried out to further identify recent studies related to theme which were not indexed in PubMed.

A literature review based on systematically retrieved systematic reviews, meta-analyses, and findings from large-scale cohorts and birth registries has been synthesized (2015–2021), and presented in a clinically relevant narrative. Studies prior to 2015 have been referred to, only if they were deemed to be key papers and/or carry important findings which continue to be relevant to the field till date.

 Risk of Relapse of Bipolar Disorder in Pregnancy

Pregnancy was found to be a strong predictor of drug discontinuation in women due to excessive concerns for fetal safety.[8] The recurrence rate was 71% without any maintenance therapy and 24% with maintenance therapy, with 66% relative risk reduction with treatment.[9] The recurrence risk was greater following an abrupt or rapid (1–14 days) discontinuation compared to slower taper.[10] Pregnancy is not protective for relapse of BD and postpartum risk increases further.[11] However, individual case considerations such as frequency and severity of episodes must guide the decision.

The following options can be considered for women with BD, who decide to conceive with continuation of prophylaxis:

Continuation, preferably monotherapy at minimum effective doseDiscontinuation or drug-free (with psychological interventions, if indicated)Limited discontinuation (for the first 12 weeks of organogenesis only)Substitution (gradual cross-taper with a safer agent) prior to conception.

Ideally, such discussions must take place prior to conception. In real life, however, pregnancies are often unplanned.[12] Therefore, contraceptive counseling should be offered to all women in follow-up for BD,[13],[14] and reproductive safety of an agent must be considered while planning prophylaxis in reproductive age group women.

 Safety and Choice of Pharmacotherapy for Bipolar Disorder in Pregnancy

The safety of pharmacotherapeutic agents used to treat BD needs to be considered in terms of associated (a) teratogenicity, (b) poor neonatal adaptation, and (c) long-term neurobehavioral sequelae.

One important point in the interpretation of drug safety data is that the data must be viewed in context of baseline rates of congenital malformations (2%–3.5%) in general population studies.[15],[16] Further, patients with BD may be at slightly higher risk of adverse pregnancy outcomes not only due to medication exposure but also potentially due to lifestyle factors, obesity, or frequently associated comorbidities (acting as confounders in studies).[15],[16],[17]

[Table 1] summarizes the safety concerns associated with drugs used in management of BD in pregnant women.{Table 1}

 Mood Stabilizers


A recent meta-analysis found that lithium was associated with an increased odds of congenital anomaly (29 studies with inclusion of 13 in analysis; n = 23,300; odds ratio [OR] = 1.81, 95% confidence interval [CI] = 1.35–2.41; number needed to harm = 33; 95% CI of 22–77; prevalence: 4.1%) and cardiac malformations (exposure during the first trimester).[18] In another meta-analytic study of 727 pregnancies with lithium exposure and 21,397 pregnancies in controls, first-trimester lithium exposure was associated with some risk of congenital malformations (OR: 1.62, 95% CI of 1.12–2.33; pooled prevalence of 7·4% vs. 4·3% in controls). However, the elevated risk of cardiac malformations was not found.[19]

In another recent cohort involving 1.3 million pregnancies, cardiac abnormalities were found in 2.4% of lithium-exposed pregnancies.[20] The overall risk of right ventricular outflow tract obstruction defects (inclusive of Ebstein's anomaly) was 0.60 per 100 live births among lithium-exposed infants (compared to 0.18 per 100 among lithium-unexposed infants). The risk appeared to be dose related. The adjusted risk ratios for cardiac malformations ranged from 1.11 for daily dose of ≤600 mg/day to 3.22 for >900 mg/day.[21]

Older studies had indicated an increased risk of fetal tricuspid valve defect (Ebstein's anomaly) with antenatal lithium exposure. The more recent studies have reported the rates to be 1in 1000–2000 lithium-exposed pregnancies. While it still represents a 10- to 20-fold increased risk over baseline, the absolute rates reported are low (0.1%) in the exposed pregnancies.[5],[21]

Poor neonatal adaptation syndrome has been reported with lithium. Floppy baby syndrome, hypotonia, respiratory distress, lethargy, neonatal goiter, diabetes insipidus, etc., have also been reported.[5],[22],[23] Furthermore, another recent large retrospective cohort study (n = 443 pregnancies among women with BD-I on lithium therapy) reported the risk of miscarriage with lithium even after adjusting for possible underlying maternal condition causing multiple miscarriages and maternal age at conception (adjusted OR: 2.94, 95% CI of 1.39–6.22).[24]

Clinical points

Lithium has relatively low teratogenic risk and can be considered for specific indications (e.g. presence of lifetime suicidality, lithium responsive patients, etc.), though most atypical antipsychotic agents and lamotrigine have even better safety profile than lithiumA small increased risk of Ebstein's anomaly (1–2/1000) can be screened in level II ultrasound and fetal echocardiographyFrequent therapeutic drug monitoring and the lowest effective dosage should be maintained during pregnancyWomen should be well hydrated, especially around delivery to curtail the chances of lithium toxicityLithium may be withheld 24–48 h before labor to reduce the risk of neonatal toxicity and/or poor neonatal adaptation syndromeNeonatal electrocardiogram and monitoring for any signs of toxicity.

Divalproate/valproic acid

Prenatal exposure to valproic acid or its preparations, especially in the first trimester, is associated with a markedly high rate of multiple congenital malformations (9%–11%) and several-fold higher risk for neural tube defects.[25],[26] A constellation of specific congenital anomalies in neonates known as fetal valproate syndrome has also been reported in the available literature. A prospective cohort from the EURAP registry (1999–2016) reported a congenital malformation rate of 10.3% with valproate, with increased rates for all doses of valproate exposure.[25] The risks increase with higher dose and combination therapy. The Cochrane database review also reported a greater risk of malformation (10.93%, 95% CI: 8.91–13.13) among any anti-epileptic monotherapy.[26] The characteristic fetal malformations included spina bifida, atrial septal defect, hypospadias, and cleft palate, among others.

Increased risk has also been reported for poor neonatal adaptation syndrome.[27] Valproate has been significantly associated with adverse neurodevelopmental outcomes including increased risk of developing autism spectrum disorder.[28] Neurobehavioral sequelae, including intellectual impairments, have also been reported.

Contraception must be discussed with all women on valproate therapy to prevent unplanned pregnancies. European countries have essentially banned the use of valproate in pregnancy. Valproate must be avoided in women of childbearing potential in view of the above-stated risks and availability of medications with better safety profile.

Clinical points

Higher teratogenicity; avoided in favor of safer agents; banned in some countriesPrior to conception, women with BD preferably to be shifted to another safer prophylactic agentFolate supplementation should be started prior to conception.


Prenatal exposure, more so in the first trimester, is associated with an increased risk of congenital malformations ranging between 3% and 6%,[25],[29],[30] which increases further at doses above 1000 mg/day.[31] A recent meta-analysis has reported more congenital malformations with carbamazepine exposure compared to controls (OR: 1.37; 95% CI of 1.10–1.71).[32] There is a risk of spina bifida with first-trimester carbamazepine exposure, though some studies have conflicting finding.[26] It has been variably associated with other craniofacial and skeletal abnormalities, small-for-gestational-age babies, and developmental delays. Carbamazepine exposure during pregnancy might also cause Vitamin K deficiency in neonates, leading to an increased risk of bleeding diathesis in neonates.

Clinical points

Higher teratogenicity; better avoided in favor of safer available agentsOral Vitamin K (20 mg/day) supplementation in the last month of pregnancy in women taking carbamazepineNeonate may be given parenteral Vitamin K (1 mg IM), shortly after birth.


Multiple pregnancy registries indicate a low risk of congenital malformations (2%–3%) with lamotrigine (at doses <300 mg per day), which is comparable to the baseline rate of congenital malformations in general population.[25],[26],[30],[31],[32] The risk of malformations was 1.9% among lamotrigine-exposed infants; however, risks increased to 9.1% for lamotrigine plus sodium valproate (OR: 5.0; 95% CI of 1.5–14.0), and 2.9% for lamotrigine combined with any other anti-epileptic drug (OR: 1.5; 95% CI of 0.7–3.0).[33]

The findings from a pregnancy registry of antiepileptic drugs reported a higher risk of oral cleft defects with an OR of 10.4 (95% CI of 4.3–24.9),[33] but more recent case–control study (3.9 million births from 19 different population registries) failed to show any significant association with oral cleft defects on lamotrigine monotherapy.[34] No marked risk of adverse fetal outcomes in the last trimester was observed in lamotrigine-exposed pregnancies.[35] The favorable safety profile of lamotrigine has been further supported by recent large observational studies and meta-analyses.[36],[37] Available literature so far does not reveal any significantly increased risk of poor neonatal adaptation syndrome or neurobehavioral sequelae till 12 months of age with lamotrigine.

Clinical points

This is among relatively safer mood-stabilizing agent for pregnant femalesDose increase may be needed to maintain therapeutic levels as its metabolism is significantly affected by changes in estrogen levelsKeep a watch for lamotrigine-induced rash in baby.


The EURAP registry study reported malformations in 3% of oxcarbazepine-exposed pregnancies.[25] Relatively limited information is available on teratogenic risks associated with oxcarbazepine use in pregnant women as compared to carbamazepine.[26] The risks appear to be low, but more substantial data are required for a conclusive statement. There may be some increased risk of developing autism in children with antenatal oxcarbazepine exposure (OR: 13.51, 95% CI of 1.28–221.40).[28]

Clinical point

Risk appears low, but more data are needed.

Atypical antipsychotic agents

Available evidence on second-generation antipsychotics (SGAs) suggests that these are relatively safe in pregnancy, with a small association with adverse neonatal and obstetrical outcomes (heart defects, preterm labor, decreased birth weight, etc.) which does not necessarily imply causation.[38],[39],[40] A systematic review of 12 studies (1782 cases and 1,322,749 controls) reported a OR of 2.03 for SGA-exposed pregnancies (95% CI: 1.41–2.93).[41] Further, SGAs do not appear to differ from first-generation agents such as haloperidol, which have more substantial reproductive safety literature.[21],[42]

The cumulative data for first-trimester-exposed pregnancies reported malformation rates of 3.5%–3.6% with olanzapine, quetiapine, and aripiprazole. However, a slightly increased rate of 5.1% with risperidone needs a further assessment.[42] There is not much pregnancy-related safety data available for lurasidone.

A recent systematic review concluded that rates of gestational diabetes mellitus are higher in the SGA exposed group (2.6%–22%), compared to the unmedicated pregnant women (0.95%–10.7%), but confounders such as the underlying maternal conditions (e.g. obesity) were not controlled.[43]

Poor neonatal adaptation syndrome has been reported. Neurodevelopmental delays were reported at 6 months of age, which were no longer significant by 12 months of age.[44] There is a need for generating more high-quality evidence regarding the long-term safety of SGAs.

Key points

Most SGAs, such as olanzapine, quetiapine, or aripiprazole, appear to be relatively safeRisperidone appears to have slightly increased risk but needs more literatureNewly marketed drugs such as lurasidone remain underrepresented in safety studiesPregnant women on olanzapine and quetiapine should be screened for gestational diabetes mellitus.


The antidepressants are used to treat depressive episode or significant refractory mood or anxiety symptoms in patients with BD under adequate cover of mood stabilizing agent (s).

Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors

A large cohort including 949,504 pregnant women and their live-born infants suggests no significant risk of fetal cardiac malformations with selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI) use.[45] However, several recent meta-analyses have indicated a small but significant increase in such risk. A recent systematic review (from January 2010 to April 2020) of 15 meta-analyses also suggested an association between the use of SSRIs and congenital anomalies.[46] Of SSRIs, paroxetine in particular has been linked to an increased risk of cardiovascular anomalies. A small risk of persistent pulmonary hypertension of newborn and postpartum hemorrhage was reported with third-trimester pregnancy exposure.[47],[48] Overall, the risk does not appear to be substantial clinically and might not justify withdrawing antidepressant, as untreated perinatal depression might also cause adverse maternal and fetal outcomes.[49] Antenatal exposure to antidepressants could lead to higher likelihood of preterm delivery, but not low-birth weight babies.[50]

Poor neonatal adaptation syndrome is observed but is often mild and self-limiting in majority of cases. There is limited and conflicting evidence of association with autism spectrum disorder.[51] Further, there were no significant or consistently reported long-term neurodevelopmental problems reported in studies assessing emotional or behavioral problems, and hyperactivity-inattention symptoms in children born to mothers taking antidepressants during pregnancy.[52],[53]

Antidepressant agents (other than selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors)

A systemic review examining the safety of mirtazapine use in pregnancy, including 31 studies (390 neonates with exposure to mirtazapine), reported no significant increase in risk of major congenital malformations with it.[54] There might be an increased risk of spontaneous abortions, respiratory difficulties, and hypoglycemia in neonates with maternal mirtazapine use. However, lack of adequate safety data to draw definitive conclusions was acknowledged. A single prospective comparative cohort study, involving 281 venlafaxine-exposed pregnancies matched to antidepressant-unexposed (n = 1405) and SSRI-exposed (n = 843) comparator groups, concluded no significantly increased risk of spontaneous abortions or any other adverse pregnancy outcomes with venlafaxine.[55] Similarly, very limited data are available for bupropion (congenital malformations rate of 2.3%), warranting more studies.[56] Studies on duloxetine are also rather limited. A recent cohort study found it to be safer for overall congenital malformations, though with a marginal rise in occurrence of cardiac malformations and postpartum hemorrhage.[57]

Key points

Try and manage milder depressive symptoms with nonpharmacological measures, and prefer to use SSRI if clinically indicatedSmall teratogenic risk is associated with SSRIs (especially paroxetine)Limited safety data for non-SSRI antidepressants.


They are frequently used as adjunctive agents in acute treatment of BD. Early evidence, including a meta-analysis by Enato et al.,[58] had suggested an association with oral cleft in the benzodiazepine (BZD)-exposed group (0.7%), compared to the nonexposed/control group (0.06%). Another study from the Swedish Medical Birth Register (1996–2011)[59] reported no congenital risk with antenatal use of BZDs except for alprazolam (OR = 1.97, 95% CI of 1.38–2.02).[59] However, this study finding was based on a relatively small first-trimester alprazolam exposure group of 444 infants (31/444).

More recently, the meta-analysis by Grigoriadis et al.[60] included eight prospective cohort studies, and showed no significant congenital anomaly with in utero exposure to BZD (OR = 1.13, 95% CI of 0.99–1.30). However, combination of BZD and antidepressants (three studies) posed a significant risk (OR = 1.40, 95% CI of 1.09–1.80).[60] In spite of the encouraging recent evidence in terms of congenital malformations, clinicians should still use them with caution during pregnancy. They might increase the risk of spontaneous abortion, preterm birth, and/or other adverse neonatal outcomes.[61]

Key points

Most BZDs were not associated with congenital anomaly riskBZDs should be avoided in pregnancy (especially in later gestational months) due to potential adverse neonatal outcomesMust be considered on PRN basis (as required), only if the benefits outweigh risks.

 General Considerations

Pharmacokinetic considerations merit attention and dose adjustments as pregnancy progresses. Pregnancy is associated with physiological changes such as weight gain, plasma volume expansion, and increased renal clearance, which can reduce serum drug concentrations of medications. Wesseloo et al.[62] in a retrospective cohort of 113 pregnancies found an increase in lithium elimination clearance during the first two trimesters, and a decline during the third trimester and postpartum. The activity of CYP450 isoenzymes might vary during pregnancy, but the precise characterization is complicated due to their genetic polymorphisms and multiple metabolic pathways.

Recent literature and clinical practice guidelines for BD[2],[12],[13] provide a set of treatment considerations in clinical care of pregnant women with BD as below

Shared decision-making, risk–benefit analysis, and case-specific considerations to be kept in mindChoose medications with better safety profile as per the latest evidencePrefer minimal effective dosagesConsider dose adjustments as per drug pharmacokinetics and physiological changesMinimize the total number of drug exposures for the fetusMore frequent monitoring of drug levels in pregnancyMonitor closely for mood symptoms at each follow-upConsider pregnancy in BD as a high-risk pregnancy and offer collaborative care.


Women of childbearing age must be advised to plan ahead for conception. A shared, decision-making must be done, based on the latest evidence on drug safety and risk–benefit analysis on an individual basis. Certain agents such as valproate/divalproic acid are contraindicated in pregnant women, while lamotrigine and most atypical antipsychotic drugs might be chosen if indicated. Lithium has a small but relatively low teratogenic risk and might be preferred in subset of lithium-responsive patients whose episodes are severe or suicidal. Pregnancy in women with BD must be monitored closely to enhance the reproductive as well as mental health outcomes in women.

Financial support and sponsorship


Conflicts of interest

There are no conflicts of interest.


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