Women can safely breastfeed while taking anti-epilepsy medication, research finds

Among the research studies that examine if women breastfeeding their children while on medication is safe, few examine the effects of anti-epilepsy medication.

Women can safely breastfeed while taking anti-epilepsy medication, research finds

Natalie Cierzan

New research involving the University of Minnesota reported that women on medication to control their epileptic seizures can safely breastfeed their children, going against a common narrative.

Few research studies exist that examine the effects of anti-epilepsy medication on infants being breastfed. This study, published last month, found that infants could be breastfed safely on these medications. Researchers said that the default response is often that breastfeeding is unsafe while taking medication. 

“Unfortunately, that’s still a perception that’s out there because the research basically lagged behind in giving good information with respect to breast milk and infants,” said Dr. Patricia Penovich, an investigator in the study and a neurologist from the Minnesota Epilepsy Association.

Women who had to take medication were told they should not breastfeed at all, she said. 

“If you look at women with epilepsy versus women who don’t have epilepsy, there’s a significant lower percentage of women who breastfeed,” Penovich said. The study shows that physicians can recommend breastfeeding to women on epilepsy medications, she added. 

According to the study, the 351 women participating mostly received either lamotrigine or levetiracetam, common epilepsy medications. When the blood of 345 infants was tested, they received anywhere from 0.3 percent to 44.2 percent of what their mothers were getting. 

Researchers often try to measure the amount of the drug in the milk, which can be tricky when different drugs have different chemical properties, Penovich said. 

“Very few studies really looked at the blood level in the infant,” she said.

Taking blood samples can be difficult for children in general, but especially for infants, said Angela Birnbaum, a lead author of the study and a professor in the Department of Experimental and Clinical Pharmacology. 

Having access to samples from unique populations like breastfeeding mothers with epilepsy can make developing research studies challenging as well, she said, which could explain why there’s limited information available. 

“There really is a big disparity between how common epilepsy is … and how that relates to the percentage of research dollars that we get on the federal level,” said Nikki Baker, the program director at the Epilepsy Foundation of Minnesota. “It’s very small compared to other chronic conditions.”

There is value in any epilepsy research that revolves around medication especially, she said. In the early ’90s, there were not many epilepsy medications out there that women could safely take while pregnant, Baker said. 

“Now [there are] several options. It’s exciting to see that we have made some progress,” she said.