Does epilepsy medicine increase the risk of birth defects?

Sodium valproate (also known as Epilim, valproic acid and Depakote) has been used as an epilepsy treatment for decades, being affordable and highly effective for dealing with a range of seizures associated with the condition.

However, there has been growing evidence in recent years that sodium valproate can be a danger to unborn children if taken by their mothers during pregnancy.

Use of the drug by expectant mothers has been connected with a range of issues in their children, including reduced intelligence and autism, however, the most serious health effect associated with the drug is the potential for a child to develop foetal valproate syndrome.

The advice from The Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) is that sodium valproate should no longer be prescribed to pregnant women of women of childbearing potential.

What is Foetal Valproate Syndrome?

Foetal Valproate Syndrome (FVS), or Foetal Anticonvulsant Syndrome (FACS), is the umbrella term for birth defects caused by exposure of a foetus to valproic acid while in the womb as a result of the mother taking sodium valproate while pregnant.

It is often not immediately obvious when a child is born that they have the condition and it sometimes take months or even years for some of the effects to be picked up on.

Common symptoms of Foetal Valproate Syndrome include:


  • Facial characteristics – including a small upturned nose with a wide bridge and epicanthic folds (where skin from the upper eyelids covers the corner of the eye)
  • Cardiac problems – due to malformation of the heart
  • Spina-bifida – where the spinal cord does not develop properly, leading to issues such as weakness, paralysis and incontinence
  • Cleft-lip/palate – usually requiring surgery to correct, resulting in life-long scarring
  • Genital abnormalities – such as the urinary opening being on the underside of the penis
  • Skeletal abnormalities – including contractions of small joints, long overlapping figures and deformity of the feet

Treating Foetal Valproate Syndrome

There is no cure for Foetal Valproate Syndrome, but there are a number of treatments that can alleviate the symptoms and dramatically improve a child’s quality of life.

These treatments will generally focus on dealing with the individual symptoms associated with Foetal Valproate Syndrome and may include one-off treatments, such as surgery, as well as on-going treatments for issues such as speech problems.

Typical treatments for Foetal Valproate Syndrome include:

Surgical intervention – May be required to correct issues such as a cleft palate, heart defects and those connected to spina bifida.

Speech & language therapy – Is often used where a child has issues with communication, including the effects of a cleft palate.

 Physiotherapy – To deal with issues with movement caused by spina bifida and skeletal abnormalities.

 Behaviour therapy – Which can be helpful where the condition has a cognitive impact.

 Occupational therapy – To help a child develop strategies for dealing with specific tasks they have problems with as a result of their condition.

Claiming compensation for Foetal Valproate Syndrome

There is increasing concern that there was a failure to warn women of the risks of sodium valproate, resulting in a Parliamentary debate and calls for a public inquiry.

If your child has been affected by Foetal Valproate Syndrome, claiming compensation may be essential. It can be used to ensure your child has all the right support in place to deal with the consequences of their condition for their health and lifestyle, giving them the best chance of living a full and happy life.

Sodium valproate claims can be complicated, especially where the claim is being made many years after your child’s birth. It is therefore strongly recommended to work with a solicitor specialising in these types of claims, ensuring they have the necessary expertise to help you secure the compensation your child needs.


Award-winning writer, blogger, social media consultant and charity campaigner. Social Media Manager for BritMums, the UK's largest parent blogging network Freelance clients include Firefly Communications and Save the Children UK. Works with brands on marketing projects. Examples include Visit Orlando, Give As You Live, Coca-Cola and Kodak. Cambridge Law graduate with many years experience working across three sectors in advice, media relations, events, training and project management. Available for hire at affordable rates.

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