Injections are vital to baby’s survival but could increase likelihood of behavioral and emotional problems
Steroid injections commonly given to pregnant women due to give birth prematurely may raise the risk of the child developing behavioral problems such as ADHD, researchers have found.
The injections, which mimic the hormone cortisol, are essential in helping the baby’s lungs develop and lower the risk of life-threatening breathing problems caused by early birth.
But the steroids, known as glucocorticoids, may also increase the likelihood of the child developing emotional and behavioral disorders, researchers said.
They said the study should not scare women into avoiding the crucial steroid injections, but claimed their findings support a theory that cortisol released naturally due to stress during pregnancy can raise the risk of ADHD.
The scientists, from Imperial College London and the University of Oulu, Finland, compared 37 children whose mothers were given glucocorticoids before going into labor, and compared them against 185 children who were born at the same gestational age but whose mothers did not have steroid treatment.
Their findings, published in the PLOS ONE journal, showed that those whose mothers had been treated performed worse on average in general mental health tests at ages eight and 16, and were more likely to have ADHD symptoms.
The researchers said the benefits of the steroids far outweigh the potential harms, and that only a small proportion of children with treated mothers had been affected.
But they said their study could shed light on previous research showing that stress during pregnancy can harm mental development in the child.
The findings support the idea that cortisol, a hormone produced naturally in response to stress, causes this link because it is extremely similar to glucocorticoids, they explained.
Prof Alina Rodriguez, senior author of the study, said: “There are a lot of studies that have found links between stress in pregnancy and effects on children’s mental health, especially ADHD, and this might be related to cortisol.
“Synthetic glucocorticoids mimic the biological reaction when the mother is stressed, so we wanted to see if babies who were exposed to this treatment are affected similarly in terms of mental health outcomes.”