Preventing Birth Defects

Preventing Birth Defects

According to the March of Dimes, about 120,000 babies in the United States are born each year with a birth defect. Birth defects can be devastating both emotionally and financially for a family, and may create a lifetime of health, learning, and behavioral challenges for a child. Though birth defect causes remain a mystery in many cases, several of the most common birth defect types can be prevented with careful attention, monitoring, and care both before conception and during pregnancy.

Birth Defect Causes

Though in many cases, scientists and doctors don’t know what causes birth defects, there are several factors that increase risk:

  • Alcohol: Women who drink during pregnancy may give birth to a child with fetal alcohol syndrome or other birth defects.
  • Illegal and prescription drugs: These can both cause birth defects, ranging from heart defects to abdominal defects to cleft lip and palate to slow mental development.
  • Infections: If a woman contracts an infection or sexually transmitted disease during pregnancy, she has a higher risk of giving birth to a child with a birth defect.
  • Genetic factors: Certain gene defects inherited from the mother or father can cause birth defects.
  • Environmental factors: Exposure to toxins in the environment can cause birth defects.

Tips for Preventing Birth Defects

Fortunately, there are many things a mother can do to lower her risk of giving birth to a child with birth defects. It all starts long before conception, however, which means that mothers can best lower their risk by planning early for childbirth.

Before Pregnancy

  • Make sure you’re current on all vaccinations.
  • Check with your doctor to be sure you’re healthy enough to be pregnant.
  • Take the recommended daily dose of folic acid (400 mcg a day). When taken at least one month before conception and during pregnancy, folic acid helps prevent birth defects of the brain and spine, like anencephaly and spina bifida.
  • Check with your doctor about any medications you’re taking, as some could increase your risk of giving birth to a child with birth defects.
  • If you smoke, stop. (It increases risk for cleft lip and palate.) If you like to drink alcohol, stop. If you have a problem with substance abuse, get medical help.
  • If you have diabetes, epilepsy, lupus, or other health conditions, talk with your doctor about treatment options during pregnancy.

During Pregnancy

  • Don’t smoke and avoid exposure to secondhand smoke.
  • Refrain from drinking any alcohol, as even one drink a week can increase the risk of birth defects.
  • Avoid exposure to anything toxic like fumes from paints, gasoline, and pesticides; water from questionable sources; harsh household cleaners; high-mercury fish like shark, swordfish, king mackerel, or tilefish; and high levels of pollution. If you work around toxic substances, check with your employer about options.
  • Continue to take a folic acid supplement and/or eat folic-acid-rich foods like dried beans, oranges, and leafy green vegetables.
  • Eat a healthy diet and get plenty of rest.
  • Exercise daily.
  • Get a flu shot (it can protect your baby as well).
  • Get regular prenatal checkups.

Genetic Testing and Birth Defects Testing

If you’re worried about potentially passing on a genetic disorder to your baby, you may want to consider genetic testing, which is simply a blood test that examines your genes before the baby is born. You can also talk to a genetic counselor.

You may also want to ask your doctor about birth defects testing. These tests can discover birth defects early on in pregnancy. For example, birth defects testing exists for genetic disorders like Down syndrome, family diseases like sickle cell anemia, and structural problems like heart defects and neural tube defects. Most tests are not 100 percent accurate, but can provide you with additional information you may want to use for future planning and decisions.

Birth Defect Treatments

Though you can significantly raise your odds of giving birth to a healthy, normal baby by taking careful steps both before conception and during pregnancy, sometimes babies are born with birth defects of unknown cause. Fortunately, there are many birth defect treatments you can explore that can help improve your baby’s condition.