Understanding & Preventing Some Birth Defects
By Dr. Lindy Truong
Birth defects are not uncommon. Every year, one out of every 33 babies is born with some kind of birth defect ranging from minor, to those with life-long challenges. Some are preventable, and many can be managed better with proper care and support from a medical team.
There are, however, some factors that increase the risk of having a baby with a birth defect. January is National Birth Defects Prevention Month, so here are ways to increase the chance of having a healthy baby. This year’s theme is “Best for you. Best for baby.”
Healthy Moms for Healthy Babies
One of the most important steps a patient can take to having a healthy baby is to make sure they are healthy themselves prior to getting pregnant and throughout pregnancy. One of the most important ways to do that is to maintain a healthy weight before becoming pregnant, since women will gain weight during pregnancy. Babies born to obese women have an increased risk of having birth defects, such as heart and spinal cord defects.
Folic Acid During Pregnancy
Folic acid plays a big role in a baby’s development during pregnancy. Women who are pregnant or might become pregnant should try to have 400 micrograms of folic acid every day. In early development, folic acid helps form the neural tube—a structure that begins forming in the first 3 to 4 weeks after conception. Later, the neural tube becomes the brain and spinal cord. Folic acid is important in preventing birth defects that affect the baby’s brain (anencephaly) and spine (spina bifida).
Starting prenatal care as early as possible during a pregnancy has shown to increase healthy, full-term deliveries. If someone is pregnant, they should start prenatal care as soon as they think they might be pregnant. It will be important to continue all prenatal appointments throughout the pregnancy. These appointments ensure that both baby and mom are healthy, monitor any medications because some can cause birth defects, and so much more.
Being current on vaccinations is important to protecting both mother and baby. The two most important vaccines to have during pregnancy are the Flu and Tdap (tetanus, diphtheria, and pertussis a.k.a. whooping cough) vaccines. When mothers get these vaccines during pregnancy, it also protects them from the flu and whooping cough for a short period post-delivery as well!
What to Avoid
Last, but not least, it is very important to avoid substances like alcohol, smoking, and recreational drugs. These can seriously increase the risk for birth defects. Drinking any alcohol during pregnancy can increase the risk of fetal alcohol syndrome and defects. Smoking and recreational drugs similarly increases the risk that the baby will be born smaller and with birth defects.
Expecting a baby can leave the parents with many questions, which is why having a trusted medical home for you and your baby is so important. If you plan to get pregnant, take care of yourself and do what is best for you, because it is also what is best for the baby.
You can schedule a preconception visit with your healthcare provider before you even become pregnant, which is a good place to start. Being healthy before pregnancy sets a good foundation for a healthy pregnancy. Continue with regular prenatal visits for close monitoring along the way. These are simple yet important things one should do to prevent birth defects in their baby.