Pregnancy in women who have epilepsy

Neurol Clin. 2004 Nov;22(4):799-820. doi: 10.1016/j.ncl.2004.07.004.


Ideal, comprehensive care of women who have epilepsy during the reproductive years must include effective preconceptional counseling and preparation. The importance of planned pregnancies with effective birth control should be emphasized, with consideration of the effects of the enzyme-inducing AEDs on lowering efficacy of hormonal contraceptive medications and the need for back-up barrier methods. Before pregnancy occurs, the patient's diagnosis and treatment regimen should be reassessed. Once the diagnosis of epilepsy is confirmed, it is important to verify if the individual patient continues to need medications and if she is taking the most appropriate AED to balance control of her seizures with teratogenic risks. For most women who have epilepsy, withdrawal of all AEDs before pregnancy is not a realistic option. A decision to undergo a trial while not taking AEDs before a planned pregnancy should be based on the same principles used for AED withdrawal in any person who has epilepsy. The taper should be completed at least 6 months before planned conception to provide some reassurance that seizures are not going to recur. If a woman who has epilepsy is in the more prevalent category of needing AEDs for seizure control, then monotherapy at the lowest effective dosage should be used. If large daily doses are needed, then frequent smaller doses or extended-release formulations may be helpful to avoid high peak levels. Some of the newest information about differential risks between AEDs also should be considered. The woman's AED regimen should be optimized and folate supplementation should begin before pregnancy. Given that 50% of pregnancies are unplanned in the United States, folate supplementation should be encouraged in all women of childbearing age who are taking any AED for any indication. Dosing recommendations vary from 0.4 mg/d to 5 mg/d. It is not uncommon for a physician to consider changing AED regimens when the patient first reports that she is pregnant. In many cases, she already is in or past the critical period of organogenesis (Table 3). If a woman who has epilepsy presents after conception and is taking a single AED that is effective, her medication usually should not be changed. Exposing the fetus to a second agent during a crossover period of AEDs only increases the teratogenic risk, and seizures are more likely to occur with any abrupt medication changes. If a woman is on polytherapy, it may be possible to switch to monotherapy safely. Seizure control remains an important goal during pregnancy. In particular, convulsive seizures place the mother and fetus at risk. Nonconvulsive seizures also may be harmful, especially if they involve falling or other forms of trauma. Monitoring serum AED levels during pregnancy can be helpful in optimizing seizure control. Prenatal screening can detect major malformations in the first and second trimesters. Vitamin K1 is given 10 mg/d orally during the last month of pregnancy followed by 1 mg intramuscularly or intravenously to the new-born. Although women who have epilepsy and women who are taking AEDs for other indications do have increased risks for maternal and fetal complications, these risks can be reduced considerably with effective preconceptional planning and careful management during pregnancy and the postpartum period.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Anticonvulsants / adverse effects*
  • Epilepsy / drug therapy
  • Epilepsy / physiopathology*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Postpartum Period
  • Pregnancy
  • Pregnancy Complications
  • Pregnancy Outcome


  • Anticonvulsants