5 behaviors to help reduce the risk of birth defects
If you are thinking about becoming pregnant, now is a perfect time to make a plan. There are steps you can take to increase your chances of having a healthy, full-term pregnancy and baby – and part of that includes learning about birth defects. Understanding birth defects across the lifespan can help those affected have the information they need to seek proper care.
Each year, birth defects affect about 1 in 33 babies born in the United States, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Mainly developing in the first three months of pregnancy as a baby’s organs form, birth defects present as structural changes and can affect one or more parts of the body (heart, brain, foot, etc.). They can cause problems for a baby’s overall health, how the body develops and functions, and are a leading cause of infant death.
Common birth defects include congenital heart defects, cleft lip, cleft palate and spina bifida. An individual’s genetics, behaviors and social and environmental factors can impact one’s risk for birth defects. Even though all birth defects cannot be prevented, there are things you can do before and during pregnancy to increase your chance of having a healthy baby.
“It’s critical that women who are planning to conceive or are pregnant adopt healthy behaviors to reduce the chances of having a baby with birth defects, which are a leading cause of infant death,” said Dr. Zsakeba Henderson, March of Dimes senior vice president and interim chief medical and health officer. “We also encourage these women to get the COVID-19 vaccine since high fevers caused by an infection during the first trimester can increase the risk of birth defects.”
To help prepare for a healthy pregnancy and baby, consider these tips from the experts at March of Dimes, the leading nonprofit fighting for the health of all moms and babies, and the CDC:
1. Have a pre-pregnancy checkup. Before you become pregnant, visit your health care provider to talk about managing your health conditions and creating a treatment plan. Talk about all the prescription and over-the-counter medicines, vitamins and supplements you’re currently taking. You should see your provider before each pregnancy.
2. Get vaccinated. Speak with your health care provider about any vaccinations you may need before each pregnancy, including the COVID-19 vaccine and booster, and flu shot. Make sure your family members are also up to date on their vaccinations to help prevent the spread of diseases.
Pregnant women are at a higher risk of severe illness or death from COVID-19 compared to those who have not been impacted by the infectious disease. Research shows babies of pregnant people with COVID-19 may be at an increased risk of preterm birth and other complications. High fevers caused by any infection during the first trimester of pregnancy can also increase the risk of certain birth defects. The COVID-19 vaccination is recommended for all people ages 5 and older, including those who are pregnant, lactating, trying to become pregnant or might get pregnant.
3. Take folic acid. Folic acid is a B vitamin that prevents serious birth defects of the brain and spine. Before becoming pregnant, take a multivitamin containing 400 micrograms of folic acid every day to help ensure your baby’s proper development and growth. While pregnant, increase to 600 micrograms daily.
Add to your diet foods containing folate, the natural form of folic acid, such as lentils, green leafy vegetables, black beans and orange juice. In addition, you can consume foods made from fortified grain products, which have folic acid added, such as bread, pasta and cereal, and foods made from fortified corn masa flour, such as cornbread, corn tortillas, tacos and tamales.
4. Try to reach a healthy weight. Talk to your health care provider about how to reach a healthy weight before becoming pregnant, as excess weight can affect your fertility and increase the risk of birth defects and other complications. Maintain a healthy lifestyle that includes eating healthy foods and regular physical activity.
5. Don’t smoke, drink alcohol or use harmful substances. Cigarettes and e-cigarettes contain harmful substances that can damage the placenta or reach the baby’s bloodstream. Smoking cigarettes can cause certain birth defects, like cleft lip and palate.
It is also not safe to drink alcohol at any time during pregnancy. This includes the first few weeks of pregnancy when you might not even know you are pregnant. Drinking alcohol can cause serious health problems for your baby, including birth defects. Additionally, do not take opioids, which are drugs that are often used to treat pain. Opioid use during pregnancy can lead to neonatal abstinence syndrome, preterm birth and may cause birth defects. Consult your physician before stopping or changing any prescribed medications.
Understanding Common Birth Defects
Cleft lip and cleft palate are birth defects in a baby’s lip and mouth that can be repaired by surgery. Additional surgery, special dental care and speech therapy may be needed as the child gets older.
Clubfoot is a birth defect of the foot where a baby’s foot turns inward, so the bottom of the foot faces sideways or up. Clubfoot doesn’t improve without treatment, such as pointing, stretching, casting the foot or using braces. With early treatment, most children with clubfoot can walk, run and play without pain.
Congenital heart defects (CHDs) are heart conditions babies are born with. They can affect how the heart looks, how it works or both. CHDs are the most common types of birth defects. Babies with critical CHDs, which can cause serious health problems or death, need surgery or other treatment within the first year of life.
Hearing loss is a common birth defect that can happen when any part of the ear isn’t working in the usual way and may affect a baby’s ability to develop speech, language and social skills. Some babies with hearing loss may need hearing aids, medicine, surgery or speech therapy.