Reducing Risk of the Top 5 Birth Defects

Reducing Risk of the Top 5 Birth Defects

3% of infants in the U.S. are born with birth defects.¹

If you’re thinking about becoming pregnant or just found out that you’re pregnant, you may also be thinking about birth defects. January is Birth Defects Awareness Month so it’s a good time to discuss the basics and learn how they occur. Knowing the risk factors can help reduce your baby’s risk of developing a birth defect in the womb.

What are Birth Defects?

Birth Defects are abnormalities that babies develop while growing in the womb. Most structural birth defects happen in the first trimester because this is when the anatomical development of a baby occurs. Birth defects typically fall into two categories: structural and genetic. Structural birth defects include, but not limited to, heart defects, neural tube abnormalities (spina bifida), hypospadias, cleft lip and palate, and club foot. Genetic birth defects include Down Syndrome, Cystic Fibrosis, Sickle Cell Disease, and many others.

The top five most commonly occurring birth defects in the United States are:

  1. Clubfoot – when an infant’s foot turns inward and requires physical therapy and/or surgery.
  2. Down Syndrome – when a baby develops an extra set of genes (Chromosome 21) that affects physical appearance and functioning, as well as intellectual ability. Down Syndrome babies are more likely to be born to mothers over the age of 35 (advanced maternal age).
  3. Cleft palate – opening in the roof of the mouth that affects feeding and speech development; easily corrected with surgery.
  4. Heart Defects – abnormal connections between heart chambers, blood vessels, problems with heart valves and/or holes in heart.
  5. Cleft Lip with Cleft Palate – opening in the roof of the mouth and a split in the lip.¹

While this may sound daunting, many structural birth defects can be repaired through surgery. These babies go on to live full and healthy lives. Other more serious and complex birth defects require a comprehensive approach that may include physical and speech therapy, special education support, and long term medical care.

How to Reduce the Risk of Birth Defects

Many birth defects are preventable, when caused by environmental factors. These factors include a pregnant mother’s exposure to harmful substances or medicines, infections during pregnancy, and lack of specific nutrients.²

For these reasons, it’s important to control the factors you can, to reduce your baby’s risk of birth defects:

  • Avoid alcohol during pregnancy, especially during the first trimester; there is no known safe consumption and excessive intake can cause Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder. Head here for more information on alcohol use and help during pregnancy.
  • Avoid infections by practicing good hand hygiene after handling raw meat and raw eggs, unwashed veggies, changing diapers, and handling pets. Stay away from dirty cat litter and rodent/wild animal droppings, as well as traveling to places with infectious diseases (Zika Virus that causes small heads in babies).
  • Make sure your vaccines are up to date (especially Rubella) and test for STIs so you can receive any necessary treatment before an infection negatively affects the baby.
  • Avoid overheating (hot tubs/saunas) and treat any fever under your doctor’s guidance so a rise in your core temperature doesn’t affect the baby.
  • Check that your prescription medications are safe to take during pregnancy (especially anti-seizure medication). More information on the safety of prescribed medications during pregnancy can be found in the Mommyato library. You should always consult your healthcare provider.
  • Seek help for drug use. There are no known safe levels of drugs, including marijuana, during pregnancy. Illicit drugs are linked to preterm birth, low birth weight babies, and birth defects. Visit Mommyato for more information on getting help with drug use.
  • Quit smoking (smoking is linked to cleft lip and palate). For more information on smoking cessation, check out our library.
  • Seek medical support for maternal obesity and Diabetes (uncontrolled blood sugar), which is linked to heart and neural tube defects in infants.
  • Eat foods that are rich in folate (leafy greens), which is a B Vitamin, as well as a wide variety of fruits and vegetables. If you don’t have regular access to healthy foods, check that your foods are fortified with folic acid (look at the label) and be sure to take a prenatal vitamin with at least 400 mcg of folic acid every day. Having enough folic acid will prevent neural tube defects like spina bifida in your baby.²

As you can see, there are so many things you can do now that are within your control to reduce the risk of your baby developing a birth defect during pregnancy. And yes, sometimes, despite your very best efforts, birth defects happen and the causes are simply unknown. The best action you can take is to take good care of yourself before and during pregnancy. Your healthy lifestyle habits will give your baby the very best chance at a healthy life too.



1. Centers for Disease Control (CDC). 2020. Data and Statistics on Birth Defects.

2. World Health Organization (WHO). 2022. Birth Defects.

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