Does having epilepsy lower your chances of having a baby?
Women who have epilepsy (recurrent seizures caused by sudden bursts of electrical activity in the brain) have a slightly higher chance of being infertile than women who don’t have epilepsy. Some people may have epilepsy that is part of another condition, meaning that it might be other symptoms of that condition that reduce fertility.
“Some women find it hard to get pregnant with epilepsy, because their seizures may affect their periods,” says Nicole Crosby-McKenna, Development Officer for Women at Epilepsy Action.
According to Nicole, some studies suggest that polycystic ovary syndrome is more common in women with temple lobe epilepsy, or women who take the drug sodium valproate. In the case with sodium valproate, often when a woman stops taking the drug, the polycystic ovary syndrome disappears.
Before you decide to start trying to get pregnant, the best thing is to understand and control your seizures, as uncontrolled seizures or frequent seizures during pregnancy can be a risk to your growing baby.
“Research shows that women who are seizure free for 12 months before pregnancy are often then seizure free during pregnancy,” says expert Nicole.
Should you speak to your doctor before trying to conceive?
Yes. It could be that you want to have a baby within the next year, or it might be that you're thinking of having a baby in two or three years, but Nicole advises you visit your GP to discuss your options as soon as you are of a child-bearing age and having sex.
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“Your GP should really talk to you about contraception as some anti-epilepsy drugs reduce the effects of some contraceptives. If you’re planning on having a baby at some point, your doctor will refer you to an epilepsy specialist for preconception counselling,” explains Nicole.
Your doctor will also explain to you about the anti-epilepsy medication you are on and whether this is any way of lowering your dosage to decrease any possible risks.
What is preconception counselling?
Preconception counselling allows to you plan your pregnancy in advance, to ensure you give your body and your baby the lowest health risk possible. You can of course go to preconception counselling more than once.
“Some women worry that preconception counselling is going to mean a specialist telling them that they can’t have a baby because they have epilepsy but this is not the case,” explains Nicole.
During your meeting, your preconception counsellor will have a look at your seizure frequency and at what anti-epilepsy drugs you are taking.
“For some women who’ve been seizure-free for two years it might be possible to reduce the amount of drugs she’s on, but this will have to be agreed by both the woman with epilepsy and her specialist,” says epilepsy expert Nicole.
The lower the amount of anti-epilepsy medication you’re on, the more the risks to the baby are reduced. However for some women, it may be impossible to stop taking a high dose of medication without putting themselves at a higher risk of uncontrollable seizures. If you do have to continue taking your medication at a high dose, it’s a good idea to start taking folic acids at a higher dose before you become pregnant, according to Nicole.
Regardless of which anti-epilepsy drug you are taking, once you have good seizure control, you can talk to your specialist about stopping your contraception and planning your pregnancy.
Should you continue to take your medication if you find out you’re pregnant?
Yes. “What you really must not do as soon as you find out you’re pregnant, as tempting as it is, is to abandon medication,” warns Nicole.
As soon as you find out you’re pregnant, your baby’s organs will have already started developing. Stopping your anti-epilepsy medicine may increase your chances of having uncontrollable seizures, which don’t necessarily harm your unborn baby, but aren’t ideal, especially if you’re having tonic-clonic seizures.
For advice on what to do when you get a positive pregnancy test result, please see Epilepsy during Pregnancy.
For further information about Epilepsy Action, call the Epilepsy Action helpline on 0808 800 5050 or visit www.epilepsy.org.uk.