It’s a scary thought that birth defects affect one in every 33 babies born in the United States. Some are minor and do not require any medical treatment, while others are serious and could result in disabilities or surgical and medical treatment. So what is a birth defect? Birth defects are conditions that happen before or at the time of birth and can be either physical, mental or medical.
Astonishingly enough, there are over 4,000 types of birth defects. Due to the fact that there are so many birth defects, it can be hard to understand what is a birth defect and what is not. A list of birth defects includes, but is not limited to:
- Cleft lip or palate
- Congenital heart defects
- Down syndrome
- Cerebral palsy
- Club foot
- Fetal alcohol syndrome
- Spina bifida
- Upper and lower limb reduction defects
Causes of Birth Defects
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), birth defects can be caused by many factors and are very complex. Causes of birth defects can include genetic problems, the mother’s personal behaviors and the environment. When a doctor knows the root cause of a birth defect, it’s likely environmental, like a mother’s exposure to chemicals during pregnancy or a problem with the baby’s genes. Research has found that the following activities or conditions can increase the chance of giving birth to a baby with birth defects:
- Smoking, doing drugs or drinking alcohol during pregnancy
- Having a medical condition, such as obesity or diabetes, before and during pregnancy
- Taking certain medications
- Being an older mother
Fortunately, there are some steps a woman can take to have a healthy pregnancy and prevent giving birth to a baby with defects.
Preventing Birth Defects
An average of 18 babies die each day because of birth defects. It should be known that many birth defects cannot be prevented. Yet there are things a woman can do during her pregnancy to increase the chance of having a healthy baby:
- Visit your health care provider. After finding out you are pregnant, you should schedule regular appointments with your health care provider. Beginning prenatal care sooner can help make sure that the mother and the baby are healthy from the start of the pregnancy. In your appointments, you should discuss any type of medication you are taking or considering taking. This would include any prescription medications, over-the-counter medications or herbal supplements.
- Get vaccinated. At your doctor appointments, make sure your vaccinations are up-to-date. Birth defects can be caused by conditions such as rubella or chickenpox. These infections are rare because most individuals receive vaccinations for them, but talk to you doctor if you believe you need to receive these vaccinations.
- Manage pre-existing conditions. If a woman has a health condition, it’s important to make sure that condition is under control before becoming pregnant. This is especially the case for conditions like obesity and diabetes. They can increase the risk for birth defects. If you are on any medications for a health condition, your medications may also need to be changed to ones that are safer to take during pregnancy.
- Take folic acid. A pregnant woman should get 400 micrograms of folic acid each day. If you plan on trying to become pregnant in the near future, you should begin taking folic acid one month before becoming pregnant. Any multivitamin or prenatal supplement should provide you enough folic acid to prevent birth defects.
- Say “no” to substances. It may seem obvious, but it is important to stop using any substances while pregnant. This includes drinking alcohol or smoking cigarettes. It also includes illicit drugs. Drug and alcohol abuse during pregnancy could result in several birth defects.
- Healthy lifestyle. Leading a healthy lifestyle can help prevent certain birth defects. A balanced diet before and during pregnancy can help both the mother and baby stay healthy.
If you have a family history of birth defects or you are considered to have a high-risk pregnancy because of age, medical history or background, you should talk with your doctor about potentially meeting with a genetic counselor. Genetic counselors can help determine the risk of a baby having a birth defect. It’s important to remember that a doctor may say that there is a higher chance that your baby will be born with a birth defect, but more likely than not your baby will be perfectly normal when he or she is born.
Preventable Birth Defects
Spinal cord birth defects, known as neural tube defects, can be prevented up to 70 percent of the time if a woman takes the appropriate amount of folic acid. The neural tube closes in the first month of conception and many women do not know they are pregnant at this point. This makes it critical for women to begin taking folic acid before pregnancy.
As mentioned before, it’s critical to avoid substances when pregnant. Fetal alcohol syndrome can lead to many birth defects and health issues in babies. This birth defect is 100 percent preventable if a woman modifies her drinking habits before becoming pregnant and stops drinking when she becomes pregnant.
The most common birth defects are found in the heart. Heart defects can occur in as many as one in 100 births. Women who have a BMI of greater than 30 appear to have an increased chance of giving birth to a baby with heart defects. Poorly controlled diabetes is a leading cause of heart defects. You should have your diabetes in good control before trying to become pregnant. If you make healthy lifestyle changes before having a baby, this could help prevent heart defects.
If Your Baby Is Born With Birth Defects
If, after prenatal testing, your doctor informs you that your baby will be born with a birth defect, it’s important to know that you are not alone. There are many support systems available that can help both you and your baby. Educating yourself as much as you can and as soon as possible will prepare you for when your baby arrives. Keep a running list of questions that you have for your doctor.
OB/GYN at UnityPoint Clinic Cares About You
Making sure you have a healthy pregnancy should be a top priority. No matter what your needs are for your pregnancy, the OB/GYN providers at UnityPoint Clinic are there for you. We have doctors who specialize in all areas, including prenatal, perinatal (high-risk pregnancies) and postpartum care. UnityPoint Clinic doctors are expert providers and are committed to making sure you receive the best care. Reach out to us today to learn how we can provide you with the care you deserve.