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Since the pill first became widely available in the 1960s, various concerns have been raised about the side effects of hormonal contraception. These can range from relatively minor worries about weight gain and loss of libido to very serious conditions such as blood clots and stroke.
On the whole, these concerns are unfounded. It is true that a woman's blood clot risk is slightly increased when taking hormonal contraception; this is due to the oestrogen in the pill making it easier for the blood to clot. However the risk is small, and any woman who smokes, is over 35 or has any other risk factors will be encouraged to use another form of contraception.
Recently, a new study has looked at another question regarding the combined contraceptive pill that is not so commonly discussed. Researchers in Denmark looked at 900,000 live births to see whether taking the pill before or during pregnancy was likely to cause birth defects.
Strange as it may seem, there could be a scenario in which a woman continues to take contraceptives while pregnant. The most obvious reason is that she is not immediately aware of the pregnancy. But many women take the pill for reasons other than contraception, such as to control acne or regulate their periods. Of course, it is not advised to keep taking contraception during pregnancy, but again, this could result in a situation where a woman continues to take the pill for some time after becoming pregnant.
Therefore this study investigated whether taking the pill at any stage of pregnancy can result in an increased risk of birth defects.
Researchers looked at four different groups of women; a fifth of the participants had never taken the pill, two-thirds discontinued use at least three months before conceiving, while two smaller groups either stopped taking the pill within three months of becoming pregnant or continued to take it throughout pregnancy.
The results revealed that none of the women were at increased risk of having a baby with a major defect. For each group the ratio of birth defects to normal birth was 25 per 1000 live births. This remained the same when stillbirths and induced abortions were included.
These findings support the idea that there is no increased risk for the babies of mothers who take oral contraception during pregnancy. However, most medical professionals would still advise coming off the pill as soon as a pregnancy is confirmed.
In the past, if you were planning to try and get pregnant, it was often advised to stop using contraception and then wait for a few months before trying for a baby in case of adverse effects from the hormones. However, this study supports more recent guidance that there is no need to wait for your menstrual cycle to return to normal, although you may find it easier to become pregnant once it has settled back into a regular pattern.