A birth defect, also known as a congenital abnormality, is a problem that occurs developmentally in a baby while it’s developing in the womb. About one in every 33 babies in the United States will be born with some type of birth defect. If that number seems high, know this: Although birth defects are fairly common in the United States, not all of them are severe.
Most birth defects are detectable within three months of pregnancy, so there is time to prepare and get informed if you are pregnant and find out your baby is at risk for a congenital abnormality. Birth defects can be inherited genetically or can be caused by external factors such as lifestyle choices, medications, infection while pregnant, or exposure to chemicals during pregnancy. There are unfortunately many types of birth defects, but in the United States the most common are heart defects, cleft lip, spina bifida, clubfoot, and down syndrome.
Not all birth defects can be prevented, but if you are pregnant or planning a pregnancy, there are a few things you can do that can improve your chances of having a healthy pregnancy.
Know your family history.
Some birth defects are genetic, so it might be helpful to know your family history as you plan a pregnancy. A genetic counselor can help you explore your family history and medical records and advise you of any risks factors for birth defects. They may also order tests to analyze the genes of both parents—and if you are already pregnant, your baby.
Increase your levels of folic acid.
Make sure your diet is high in folic acid even before you get pregnant. Folic acid is a B vitamin, and low levels of folic acid can cause brain and spine developmental issues, including spina bifida. You should start taking folic acid at least a month before you become pregnant and continue throughout the pregnancy.
Stay fit and healthy.
You should also exercise and maintain a healthy diet before and during your pregnancy. Everyone’s pregnancy experience is different, so talk with your doctor to find ways to stay healthy that also make your body feel good. Additionally, if you have diabetes or develop diabetes in pregnancy, work with your doctor to keep that under control. Diabetes can also lead to some heart defects if not managed properly.
Understand the risks of medications.
Tell your doctor of any medications you’re taking before you get pregnant, and they can guide you on whether or not those are safe to take during pregnancy. Talk with your doctor about vaccinations, as well. Most vaccinations are safe for an expecting parent during pregnancy, and some are even essential, so talk with your doctor about which ones will keep your growing baby safely.
Avoid substance use, alcohol, and tobacco.
You should also stop drinking, smoking, and taking drugs during pregnancy. There’s no known healthy amount of alcohol or marijuana for a pregnant person, so to make sure you and the baby are as healthy as possible, it’s best to refrain from both during pregnancy. If you smoke cigarettes, you should also stop smoking those even before you get pregnant. Smoking cigarettes right before or during pregnancy could cause cleft palate.
Meet with your doctor regularly.
Finally, make sure you see your doctor regularly for check-ups during your pregnancy. If you are planning a pregnancy, see your doctor before you get pregnant and, once you are pregnant, go for regular checkups. Additionally, if you ever get a fever while pregnant, see your doctor immediately to make sure this won’t lead to any birth defects or cause harm to you or your baby.
Stay informed, but don’t worry.
Being informed about the risk of birth defects and understanding the changes you might need to make may be reassuring. But as long as you’re following the steps above and listening to your doctor, there’s no need to worry.
There are many ways to treat and manage the most common birth defects, should one occur, but give yourself the space to cross that bridge if you come to it. While you can take care of yourself and your growing baby, you can’t control everything. And that’s a good attitude for any new parent to take to heart.