A baby is born with a birth defect in the U.S. every 4.5 minutes, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Birth defects are defined as any structural changes present at birth that affect how the body looks, works, or both, and they can vary from mild to severe. While not all birth defects can be prevented, there are concrete steps pregnant mothers can take to increase the chances of giving birth to a healthy baby.
In honor of January designated in the U.S. as National Birth Defects Prevention Month, the CDC recently released a resource guide (2019 Digital Toolkit www.nbdpn.org) providing pregnant moms tips for preventing birth defects.
Dr. Sandra Elizabeth Ford, director of the DeKalb County Board of Health (Ga.) and board member for NACCHO, which represents the nation’s 3,000 local health departments, points to several factors which put expectant mothers more at risk with income status and diet among the most significant.
“Race, ethnicity and easy and affordable access to prenatal care count among factors that contribute to increasing the risk for birth defects, as do certain genetic factors. Nutrition, for example folate deficiency, is also a risk factor, but this could also be the peripheral result of low income and/or decreased access to prenatal care. The effects of poverty put poor people at risk for negative health outcomes, generally – pregnant (poor) moms are even more vulnerable. Stress (often a result of poverty) can also play an important role in creating a high-risk pregnancy),” she said during an interview with the CDC.
Still, mothers can increase their chances of having a healthy baby by doing what they can to be their healthiest self both before and during pregnancy.
Five Tips for Preventing Birth Defects
Tip ❶: Be sure to take 400 micrograms (mcg) of folic acid every day.
Folic acid is very important because it can help prevent some major birth defects of the baby’s brain and spine. Folate is found naturally in certain fruits, vegetables, nuts and in fortified (enriched) foods: breads, pasta, and cereals. In addition to eating foods with folate from a varied diet (including foods like spinach and avocado), you can take a vitamin that has folic acid in it every day.
Tip ❷: Visit your health care provider before stopping or starting any medicine If you are planning to become pregnant, discuss your current medicines with your doctor or pharmacist. There are often benefits to continuing your treatment throughout your pregnancy. Don’t forget to talk about your family history.
Tip ❸: Become up-to-date with all vaccines, including the flu shot; they help protect you and your baby. Some vaccinations, such as the flu (influenza) vaccine and the Tdap vaccine (adult tetanus, diphtheria, and acellular pertussis vaccine), are specifically recommended during each pregnancy.
Pregnant women with flu have an increased risk of serious problems for their pregnancy, including preterm birth, and should get the flu shot during pregnancy. Tdap vaccine, taken near the end of each pregnancy (weeks 27 – 36), helps your body make antibodies which give your baby short-term protection against whooping cough (also called pertussis). If you live in the home or will be helping to take care of a new baby, you should also receive the Tdap vaccine before the baby is born.
Tip ❹: Before getting pregnant, try to reach a healthy weight.
Obesity increases the risk for several serious birth defects and other pregnancy complications. If you’re underweight, overweight, or obese, talk with your doctor about ways to reach and maintain a healthy weight before you get pregnant. Eating healthy foods and being physically active are great ways to prepare for pregnancy.
Tip ❺: Boost your health by avoiding harmful substances during pregnancy, such as alcohol, tobacco, and other drugs.
Alcohol: There is no known safe amount of alcohol during pregnancy or when trying to get pregnant. For a developing baby, who’s exposed to the same concentration of alcohol as the mother during pregnancy, the result could be various lifelong physical, behavioral and intellectual disabilities. Alcohol use also increases the risk of miscarriage, stillbirth, prematurity and sudden infant death syndrome and may even make it more difficult to become pregnant.
Smoking: Smoking during pregnancy can harm the placenta and a developing baby and can cause certain birth defects. Cigarette smoke has over 4,000 chemicals including nicotine, carbon monoxide and tar which damage the placenta and/or pass through the placenta and umbilical cord to reach your baby’s bloodstream. Quit smoking. You’ll feel better and provide a healthier environment for your baby.
Because they are relatively new and are not well-regulated, there is less known about the effects of e-cigarettes on pregnancy. Until more and better information is available, it is recommended that pregnant women not use e-cigarettes.
Marijuana: During pregnancy, the chemicals in marijuana (in particular, tetrahydrocannabinol or THC) pass through mom to a developing baby and can harm its development. More research is needed to better understand how marijuana may affect mom and baby during pregnancy. However, it is recommended that pregnant women not use marijuana.
Prescription Opioids: Painkillers such as codeine, morphine and oxycodone may be prescribed following an injury, surgery, or dental work. Any type of opioid exposure during pregnancy can cause neonatal abstinence syndrome, or a condition the newborn experiences from withdraw from certain drugs after exposure during pregnancy.