23 Dec Reducing the Risks of Newborn Birth Defects
Birth defects affect babies all over the world. A birth defect is a structural change to a baby’s body part, inside or outside the body.
What Causes Birth Defects?
Birth defects happen as a result of: genetics, infection, exposure to an environmental toxin like radiation, or exposure to an internal toxin, like drugs, medication, alcohol, or smoking. They can also happen as a result of poor diet (low in folic acid) or uncontrolled blood sugar (Diabetes diagnosis or chronic high blood sugar).
Every woman carries the risk of having a baby with a birth defect. This is called a background risk. The background risk for every woman is 3-5%. Yet, every woman can be proactive in reducing additional risk to her baby.
How Can I Reduce My Baby’s Risk of a Birth Defect?
Not all birth defects can be detected through ultrasound or testing during the prenatal period. There are many ways to reduce the risk of birth defects before you get pregnant:
- Make an appointment with your healthcare provider before you get pregnant to discuss your family medical history and understand your personal risk. Underlying chronic health conditions like obesity, diabetes, and high blood pressure increase the risk of birth defects in babies.¹
- Take 400 mcg of folic acid every day, in a high quality multivitamin. Most prenatal vitamins contain 400-800 mcg in a daily dose. Ideally, start this at least a month before you get pregnant. Folic acid prevents neural tube defects, which are abnormalities of the heart, spine, and brain.
- Maintain a healthy weight. Obesity and uncontrolled high blood sugar increase the risk of birth defects, specifically in the baby’s brain, heart and spine.²
- Review any prescription medications with your healthcare provider. Every medication has a different level of risk to a developing baby. Some very common medications, like accutane, are known to cause birth defects. You may need to talk with your provider about the risks to your baby versus the benefits to you during the pregnancy. Check out this medical resource to look up your specific medication, or any pregnancy or breastfeeding exposure:
- Avoid alcohol, marajuana, and street drugs. There are no known safe amounts of alcohol or drugs for a fetus developing in the womb. Fetuses cannot metabolize drugs and alcohol like an adult and are at risk for birth defects like brain damage and Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD). FASD can include facial deformities, heart defects, and long term neurobehavioral disorders.¹ Click here for more information about getting help.
- Avoid smoking and secondhand smoke. Smoking during pregnancy is linked to cleft lip and cleft palate birth defects. Quitting before pregnancy is best.² Learn more about smoking cessation
- Avoid harmful agents like high Vitamin A (Accutane, high dose supplements), lead (paint, construction materials, jewelry and pottery from foreign countries) and mercury (tuna, king mackerel, marlin, orange roughy, shark, swordfish and tilefish).¹
- Prevent infections by keeping your vaccine status up-to-date (Rubella) and practice protection and hygiene against Sexually Transmitted Infections, Toxoplasmosis (from cat poop) and Cytomegalovirus (CMV) (commonm virus that spreads through body fluids).²
- Avoid overheating. Treat a fever under your medical provider’s direction. Avoid saunas and hot tubs that raise your core body temperature.²
Not all birth defects are preventable. But, you can do much to prevent unnecessary or additional risk to your developing fetus by being knowledgeable and putting this knowledge into daily practice. For more information contact the Society for Birth Defects Research and Prevention (Resources for Public/Families).
Organization of Teratology Information Specialists: Resource for Safety and Risk of Specific Drugs during Pregnancy
Society for Birth Defects Research and Prevention: Resources for Public/Families
- American College of Gynecologists (ACOG). October 2019. Reducing risks of birth defects.
- Centers for Disease Control (CDC). November 24, 2021. Awareness of birth defects across the lifespan: before and during pregnancy.