The latest danger for pregnant women is the drug that was considered to be the safest. Yes, researchers are now claiming that paracetamol taken in pregnancy can cause ADHD in children.
I heard this news and was immediately despondent. Pregnancy is no longer an issue for me, as I’ve had three kids and I’m not having any more. But I remember with vivid clarity the fear I felt, as a pregnant woman, that every single thing I ingested or inhaled would cause harm to my baby.
I’m an anxious person anyway, but being pregnant sent my anxiety levels soaring. There is a tremendous responsibility in growing another human being inside you. If I came near paint fumes, if I inhaled second-hand smoke, if I had a sip of wine at a celebration, if, god forbid, I needed to take a Panadol to bring down a fever, I was convinced that I was going to hurt my unborn child.
I became a regular caller to the Mothersafe line at the Women’s Hospital, a telephone line set up to provide free advice to pregnant women.
“I just cleaned my oven, and then I read that pregnant women shouldn’t use oven cleaner!” I cried.
“Did you faint from the fumes?” the nurse asked gently.
“No,” I told her.
“Then your baby will be absolutely fine.”
Another time I read that the quinine in tonic water can cause miscarriage.
“I drank tonic water yesterday!” I said in panic.
“How many litres did you drink?” came the voice on the phone.
“Um ... a glass?” I said.
“You have nothing to worry about.”
And here is the reality. The vast majority of pregnancies will result in healthy babies. And the vast majority of mothers will stress about all the ways the pregnancy will go wrong.
Pregnant women feel guilt about practically everything. They feel guilty if they have exercised too much and guilty if they’ve exercised too little. They feel guilty if they don’t eat enough vegies or if they’ve snuck in that bowl of chips. And god forbid they give in to a craving for sushi – you may as well be a crack addict for all the fear that engenders.
And now, to add to the burden of guilt, is the news about paracetamol, previously considered to be perfectly safe.
Women take paracetamol for numerous reasons: for pain relief, to combat headaches and back ache, for fever (which, incidentally, can be very dangerous for a fetus). No doubt hundreds and thousands of women have taken the drug during pregnancy, and chances are thousands will continue to do so.
I was watching the news with my kids when the story broke. “Not something else that people are doing wrong?” my 12-year-old said. And while she is too young to appreciate ‘mother guilt’, her initial response was spot on. Because now, mums can list ‘taking pain killers’ to the list of things of things they ‘do wrong’. And that list is gets longer and longer by the year.
What does it mean for pregnant women to have so many restrictions? Should we just live in protective bubbles while we are pregnant? Do we not take any drugs for pain relief while we are sick? And should we not trust the doctors who tell us it is safe? After all, paracetamol was safe until this week. Who knows what will be unsafe next week. Toothpaste?
Alternatively, do we just do the best that we can? Perhaps we have to accept that life has risks and make the best choices with the information available. Surely it can’t be good for pregnant women to worry about everything they do. Surely the anxiety can’t be good for the growing fetus. And surely we need to keep the findings in context; hundreds of thousands of us have taken paracetamol in pregnancy, and most of us don’t have kids with ADHD. Is it possible that – like with alcohol and exercise – moderation and sense are key?
Naturally these are issues every woman must decide for herself. And happily, I’m not going to have to grapple with them again. But if I did, I’m pretty sure I know which way I’d lean.
Because if there’s one thing that’s toxic for babies, it’s an anxious and guilty mum.