With one in every 33 babies being born with a birth defect each year, it's a heart-rending problem more common than you may think. Many times the cause of birth defects is unknown; sometimes the cause is hereditary but it can also happen out of the blue, with no prior family history.
"While you don't have control over those types of things, there are other steps you can take to help reduce the risk of fetal birth defects," says Lina Wong, DO, a board-certified obstetrician/gynecologist at St. Jude Heritage Medical Group. Dr. Wong offers these suggestions for prospective mothers:
1. Take folic acid every day--even if you're not pregnant yet.
Because it promotes cell growth, this B vitamin is one of the best things you can take to help prevent neural tube birth defects, which affect the spinal area and the brain. "If there's even a slight chance you can get pregnant, you should be taking folic acid every day, as neural tube defects such as spina bifida occur during the first month of pregnancy," says Dr. Wong. "Women should take 400 micrograms a day before becoming pregnant; your obstetrician may suggest taking a higher dosage during pregnancy."
2. Quit smoking and drinking.
Cigarettes and alcohol may be potential causes of birth defects, due to fetal exposure in the womb. "Smoking is bad for your health, whether or not you're trying to get pregnant, but because it can affect the baby's health you should try to quit before trying to conceive," Dr. Wong says. "And if you're trying to have a baby, you should abstain from alcohol, and of course not drink at all during a pregnancy. It can cause fetal alcohol spectrum disorders. That can lead to a higher risk of birth defects that can affect the kidneys, bones and heart."
3. Watch what you eat.
It's a given that nutritious foods are best for expectant mothers. But a healthy diet is another preventive measure against birth defects--if you are obese, you can have a higher risk of birth defects. "Eating well can also help women with diabetes, as not managing the disease can contribute to a higher risk of neural tube defects," Dr. Wong says.
4. Wash your hands and get your shots.
If you catch an infectious disease while pregnant, there is a chance you could pass it on to your unborn child, which opens them up to birth defect risk. "Follow good hand-washing procedures--scrubbing with warm water and soap for 20 seconds--especially if you've been around sick people. You should also make sure hands are clean after cooking raw foods, taking out the trash, or petting or feeding an animal," Dr. Wong says. "And some vaccinations, such as those for the flu and measles, mumps and rubella, are recommended to protect mothers and their unborn babies. Talk with your doctor to see what vaccinations you may need before or during pregnancy."
5. Don't skip the doctor's appointments.
If you're used to just an annual well-woman visit during your pre-pregnancy life, it may be an adjustment to go to all the checkups needed during pregnancy. But don't skip any of them: "Your doctor can use these appointments to take blood tests, do ultrasounds and perform other types of screening exams that can point to potential birth defects," Dr. Wong says.
6. Seek out good genetic counseling if necessary.
If, during one of those checkups, your doctor finds an indication of a problem, you'll likely be referred to a specialist who can work with you further to determine any potential complications and risks. "For instance, the Fetal Diagnostic Center at St. Jude Medical Center in Fullerton, California, helps women manage high-risk pregnancies," Dr. Wong says. "Diagnostic tools such as amniocentesis and 4-D sonograms can be valuable tools in spotting birth defects, and that information can be used to develop a treatment plan not just for the pregnancy but after the baby is born as well." For more information on the Fetal Diagnostic Center, click here.
This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your health care professional's instructions.