Baby’s First Words on Hold: The Alarming Acetaminophen Connection Uncovered

Baby Language Delay Concept

A new study found that increased use of acetaminophen during pregnancy, especially in the third trimester, is associated with language delays in children. The study used detailed methodologies to track developmental impacts, revealing significant vocabulary reductions in two-year-olds and lower language skills at age 3. Researchers advise cautious use of acetaminophen for minor pains in pregnancy. Credit:

Research from the University of Illinois links increased acetaminophen use during pregnancy to early childhood language delays. The study advises caution in using the drug for minor pains during pregnancy, while recognizing its necessity for serious pain or fever.

Acetaminophen is considered the safest over-the-counter pain reliever and fever reducer available during pregnancy, and studies show that 50%-65% of women in North America and Europe have taken the analgesic during pregnancy. A new study from researchers at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign explored the relationship between acetaminophen use during pregnancy and language outcomes in early childhood. It found that increasing acetaminophen use was associated with language delays.

The findings are reported in the journal Pediatric Research.

Common over-the-counter medicine brands that contain acetaminophen include Tylenol, NyQuil, DayQuil, Excedrin, Alka-Seltzer Plus, Mucinex, and Robitussin.

Comparative Study and Research Methodology

Earlier studies have found associations between acetaminophen use during pregnancy and poorer child communication skills. But those studies used measures of language development that were less precise than the methods applied in the current study, said Megan Woodbury, who led the research as a graduate student with U. of I. comparative biosciences professor emerita Susan Schantz.

The work was conducted as part of the Illinois Kids Development Study, which explores how environmental exposures in pregnancy and childhood influence child development. Schantz is the IKIDS principal investigator. Woodbury is now a postdoctoral researcher at Northeastern University in Boston. Schantz is a researcher in the Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology at the U. of I.

Megan Woodbury

Study lead author Megan Woodbury. Credit: Heather Wanninger

“The previous studies had only asked pregnant people at most once a trimester about their acetaminophen use,” Woodbury said. “But with IKIDS, we talked to our participants every four to six weeks during pregnancy and then within 24 hours of the kid’s birth, so we had six time points during pregnancy.”

Detailed Language Analysis in Early Childhood

The language analyses involved 298 2-year-old children who had been followed prenatally, 254 of whom returned for further study at age 3.

For the 2-year-olds, the researchers turned to the MacArthur-Bates Communicative Development Inventories, which asks a parent to report on the child’s vocabulary, language complexity, and the average length of the child’s longest three utterances.

“We wanted to collect data at that age because it’s the period called ‘word explosion,’ when kids are just adding words every day to their vocabulary,” Schantz said.

Susan Schantz

A new study links acetaminophen use in pregnancy to modest but significant delays in the language development of offspring, says Illinois Kids Development Study principal investigator Susan Schantz, a U. of I. professor emerita of comparative biosciences. Credit: Fred Zwicky

The vocabulary measure asked parents to select words their child had used from a list of 680 words.

The parents assessed their child again at 3 years, comparing their language skills to those of their peers.

The analysis linked acetaminophen use in the second and third trimesters of pregnancy to modest but significant delays in early language development.

Key Findings and Implications

“We found that increased use of acetaminophen – especially during the third trimester – was associated with smaller vocabulary scores and shorter ‘mean length of utterance’ at 2 years,” Woodbury said.

“At age 3, greater acetaminophen use during the third trimester was related to parents ranking their kids as lower than their peers on their language abilities,” Schantz said. “That outcome was seen primarily in male children.”

The most dramatic finding was that each use of acetaminophen in the third trimester of pregnancy was associated with an almost two-word reduction in vocabulary in the 2-year-olds.

“This suggests that if a pregnant person took acetaminophen 13 times – or once per week – during the third trimester of that pregnancy, their child might express 26 fewer words at age 2 than other children that age,” Woodbury said.

Fetal brain development occurs throughout pregnancy, but the second and third trimesters are especially critical times, Schantz said.

“Hearing is developing in the second trimester, but language development is already starting in the third trimester before the baby is even born,” she said.

“It’s thought that acetaminophen exerts its analgesic effect through the endocannabinoid system, which is also very important for fetal development,” Woodbury said.

Caution and Further Research

The findings need to be tested in larger studies, the researchers said. Until then, people should not be afraid to take acetaminophen for fever or serious pain and discomfort during pregnancy. Conditions like a very high fever can be dangerous and using a drug like acetaminophen will likely help.

“There aren’t other options for people to take when they really need them,” Schantz said. “But perhaps people should use more caution when turning to the drug to treat minor aches and pains.”

Reference: “Examining the relationship of acetaminophen use during pregnancy with early language development in children” by Megan L. Woodbury, Patricia Cintora, Shukhan Ng, Pamela A. Hadley and Susan L. Schantz, 11 December 2023, Pediatric Research.
DOI: 10.1038/s41390-023-02924-4

This work was supported by the Children’s Environmental Health and Disease Prevention Research Center funded by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the National Institutes of Health Environmental Influences on Child Health Outcomes program.

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