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10 Ways to Help Prevent Birth Defects

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A birth defect is a condition that is present when a baby is born, though it may not be noticed until later in life. Some birth defects are inherited from parents, while others are caused by problems in the parts of a person’s cells known as chromosomes. A small number of birth defects are caused by exposure during pregnancy to certain medications, infections, and chemicals.

For many birth defects, the cause is not known, which usually makes them hard to prevent. However, there are things you can do to take control of your health and reduce your baby’s risk of birth defects:

  1. Don’t drink alcohol during pregnancy. Alcohol can interfere with the normal growth of the fetus and cause birth defects. When a woman drinks during pregnancy, her fetus can develop physical, intellectual, behavioral, and learning disabilities that can last a lifetime. This is more likely for women who drink a lot of alcohol throughout pregnancy, but no amount of alcohol is safe for a fetus, so it’s best to avoid it altogether.
  2. Don’t use illicit drugs. Taking illegal drugs (heroin, cocaine, methamphetamines, etc.) early in pregnancy can increase the chance of birth defects. It also can cause preterm birth, low birth weight, and even stillbirth.
  3. Maintain a healthy weight. Women who are obese (defined as a body mass index, or BMI, above 30) when they get pregnant are at an increased risk of having a baby with birth defects. The most common defects in newborns of obese women are heart and spine problems and a cleft palate (an opening or split in the roof of the mouth). The best way to decrease this risk is to lose weight before pregnancy.
  4. Take a daily multivitamin with the right amount of folic acid. When women become pregnant, their daily need for vitamins and minerals increases. Almost all prenatal vitamins contain the recommended amounts of the vitamins and minerals needed during pregnancy, including iron, vitamins A/C/D, and folic acid. Folic acid is the most important of these in helping prevent birth defects, and taking 400 micrograms at least one month prior to pregnancy helps prevent major birth defects of the spine. For that reason, all women of reproductive age should consider taking prenatal vitamins, even if they aren’t pregnant.
  5. Optimize your medications before pregnancy. Many medications are associated with birth defects. If you are pregnant or thinking about getting pregnant in the near future, tell that to any health care providers who prescribe you drugs, so they can make sure your medication is compatible with pregnancy. In some cases, pregnancy may even need to be delayed until the medication is completely out of your system. DO NOT STOP any medication without first talking to your prescribing doctor, because a worsening of your medical condition may be more harmful to your baby then the risk of the medication. Once pregnant, check with your OB/GYN or other health care professional before taking common over-the-counter drugs – including pain relievers, allergy medications, and herbal products – to make sure they are safe during pregnancy. As a general rule, you should use caution with any over-the-counter drugs in the first trimester and moderate their use throughout the remainder of the pregnancy.
  6. Avoid known harmful agents. Some environmental agents can increase the risk of birth defects. For those who live or work near ongoing lead exposure, alternative arrangements should be strongly considered to limit this exposure prior to attempting pregnancy. Avoid taking in a large amount of vitamin A, which has been linked to severe birth defects. If you avoid high-dose supplements, you likely will stay under the recommended 10,000 international units (IUs) of vitamin A per day. It’s also important to limit your exposure to mercury by not eating fish with high mercury content, such as shark, swordfish, king mackerel, and tilefish. You do not have to avoid all fish during pregnancy; in fact, eating 8-12 ounces of fish or shellfish helps provide valuable nutrients for a pregnant woman and her growing fetus.
  7. Optimize any medical conditions before pregnancy. For women with medical conditions, doing your best to stabilize them prior to pregnancy will decrease the chance of birth defects. Women with uncontrolled diabetes have an increased risk of problems in the brain, heart and spine. Women with high blood pressure have an increased risk of poor placental blood flow, which can cause inappropriate development and growth in some of the fetal organs. If you have a medical condition, see your OB/GYN or other health care provider to discuss any lifestyle or medication changes that can help control your condition before you try to get pregnant.
  8. Prevent infections. One of the most feared causes of birth defects is unintended infections. Not all infections can be prevented, but certain things can be done to decrease this risk. Avoid traveling to remote areas with poor sanitation, don’t eat raw or undercooked meat, and wash all fruits and vegetables before eating them. Avoid contact with animal feces, such as changing a cat’s litter box. Avoid continuous exposure to sexually transmitted infections, and treat them before pregnancy if you are infected. For women who work with young children, take steps to prevent infection, including washing your hands frequently and wearing gloves when changing diapers.
  9. Stay up to date on all vaccines. Infections such as measles, rubella (German measles), and varicella (chickenpox) can cause major birth defects when a mother is infected during pregnancy. The good news is that most of these have vaccines that can greatly decrease your chance of infection. However, most of these vaccines cannot be given during pregnancy, so you should be up to date on all vaccines prior to pregnancy.
  10. Talk to your doctor about the best time to get pregnant. For women who don’t have major risk factors and are in good health, there is no better time to get pregnant then the present. However, it is always good to confirm this with your women’s health care provider, to make sure there are no obvious risk factors that can be addressed prior to attempting conception. Scheduling a doctor visit before getting pregnant is a great way to get advice on general lifestyle changes, including diet and exercise, as well as information on any individual factors you may have that can increase the risk of having a child with a birth defect.

Click here for information on UAB Women & Infants Services.