A new study suggesting that children have a higher risk of behavior problems if their mothers took acetaminophen (Tylenol and generic) while pregnant has everyone's attention right now. After all, doctors still advise taking acetaminophen for pain and fever during pregnancy because of its presumed safety—as many as 7 out of every 10 expectant mothers takes the drug. So what’s a pregnant mom supposed to do instead?

For now, the best advice for pregnant women is to first continue to take Tylenol as advised by your physician, say if you have a fever; advises Consumer Reports’ Medical Director Orly Avitzur, M.D. “It’s still by far the safest option for most expectant mothers,” she says. Otherwise, whenever possible, treat colds and minor aches and pains with nondrug measures, she notes.

In the analysis, published online August 15 in JAMA Pediatrics, British researchers looked at more than 14,000 families in the U.K. Mothers reported their use of acetaminophen at 18 and 32 weeks into their pregnancy. Then, when kids were 7 years old, each of the mothers answered questions about her child’s behavior issues, hyperactivity symptoms, and relationships with friends. Mothers who took acetaminophen during the third trimester had children with a slightly higher risk of behavioral problems: 6 percent of children in that group had behavior problems compared to 4 percent of those whose mothers didn't take the drug.

One strength of this latest study is that it was designed to rule out some genetic and socioeconomic factors, says lead author Evie Stergiakouli, Ph.D., a professor of genetic epidemiology and statistical genetics at the University of Bristol in England. "We found that children exposed to acetaminophen prenatally are at increased risk of multiple behavioral difficulties and the associations do not appear to be explained by unmeasured behavioral or social factors," she says. "That indicates a possible biological effect of the drug.” 

Use All Meds With Caution

Still, the risks acetaminophen poses to a developing fetus seem to be slight—if they exist at all, say our experts. And, acetaminophen continues to be a safer option than other pain relievers for most expectant mothers according to a 2015 Food and Drug Administration (FDA) report. An FDA spokesperson told us that the agency is continuing to monitor the safety of pain relievers for pregnant women and is reviewing the findings of this newest study.

Stergikouli says that her research shouldn’t dissuade women from taking acetaminophen when they really need it. She points out that not treating severe pain or fever can harm both mothers and their unborn child. “Leaving fever untreated, for example, can lead to premature labor,” she says.

This new evidence also makes a case for not treating every ache or sniffle with a medication if you’re pregnant,  says Avitzur. 

“Nondrug measures can go a long way towards alleviating minor symptoms without the risk,” she says. Massage, meditation, and relaxation exercises can help ease tension headaches and back pain, for example, and rest, fluids, and your favorite recipe of chicken soup are safer ways to manage cold symptoms.

In fact, Avitzur advises women who are pregnant or may become pregnant to be extremely cautious about anything they take, not just acetaminophen. That includes OTC and prescription medications, as well as all vitamins, minerals, and herbals. For more information on the safety of medications during pregnancy, see our report.

Editor's Note: This article and related materials are made possible by a grant from the state Attorney General Consumer and Prescriber Education Grant Program, which is funded by the multistate settlement of consumer-fraud claims regarding the marketing of the prescription drug Neurontin (gabapentin).