5 behaviors to help reduce the risk of birth defects
(Family Features) If you are thinking
about becoming pregnant, now is a perfect time to make a plan. There are steps you can take to increase
your chances of having a healthy, full-term pregnancy and baby – and part of that includes learning
about birth defects. Understanding birth defects across the lifespan can help those affected have the
information they need to seek proper care.
Each year, birth defects affect about 1 in 33 babies born in the United
States, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Mainly developing in the
first three months of pregnancy as a baby’s organs form, birth defects present as structural changes and
can affect one or more parts of the body (heart, brain, foot, etc.). They can cause problems for a
baby’s overall health, how the body develops and functions, and are a leading cause of infant death.
Common birth defects include congenital heart defects, cleft lip, cleft palate and spina bifida. An
individual’s genetics, behaviors and social and environmental factors can impact one’s risk for birth
defects. Even though all birth defects cannot be prevented, there are things you can do before and
during pregnancy to increase your chance of having a healthy baby.
“It’s critical that women who are planning to conceive or are pregnant adopt healthy behaviors to reduce
the chances of having a baby with birth defects, which are a leading cause of infant death,” said Dr.
Zsakeba Henderson, March of Dimes senior vice president and interim chief medical and health officer.
“We also encourage these women to get the COVID-19 vaccine since high fevers caused by an infection
during the first trimester can increase the risk of birth defects.”
To help prepare for a healthy pregnancy and baby, consider these tips from the experts at March of Dimes,
the leading nonprofit fighting for the health of all moms and babies, and the CDC:
1. Have a pre-pregnancy checkup. Before you become
pregnant, visit your health care provider to talk about managing your health conditions and creating a
treatment plan. Talk about all the prescription and over-the-counter medicines, vitamins and supplements
you’re currently taking. You should see your provider before each pregnancy.
2. Get vaccinated. Speak with your health care provider about any
vaccinations you may need before each pregnancy, including the COVID-19 vaccine and booster, and flu
shot. Make sure your family members are also up to date on their vaccinations to help prevent the spread
Pregnant women are at a higher risk of severe illness or death from COVID-19 compared to those who have
not been impacted by the infectious disease. Research shows babies of pregnant people with COVID-19 may
be at an increased risk of preterm birth and other complications. High fevers caused by any infection
during the first trimester of pregnancy can also increase the risk of certain birth defects. The
COVID-19 vaccination is recommended for all people ages 5 and older, including those who are pregnant,
lactating, trying to become pregnant or might get pregnant.
3. Take folic acid. Folic acid is a B vitamin that prevents serious birth
defects of the brain and spine. Before becoming pregnant, take a multivitamin containing 400 micrograms
of folic acid every day to help ensure your baby’s proper development and growth. While pregnant,
increase to 600 micrograms daily.
Add to your diet foods containing folate, the natural form of folic acid, such as lentils, green leafy
vegetables, black beans and orange juice. In addition, you can consume foods made from fortified grain
products, which have folic acid added, such as bread, pasta and cereal, and foods made from fortified
corn masa flour, such as cornbread, corn tortillas, tacos and tamales.
4. Try to reach a healthy weight. Talk to your health care provider about
how to reach a healthy weight before becoming pregnant, as excess weight can affect your fertility and
increase the risk of birth defects and other complications. Maintain a healthy lifestyle that includes
eating healthy foods and regular physical activity.
5. Don’t smoke, drink alcohol or use harmful substances. Cigarettes and
e-cigarettes contain harmful substances that can damage the placenta or reach the baby’s bloodstream.
Smoking cigarettes can cause certain birth defects, like cleft lip and palate.
It is also not safe to drink alcohol at any time during pregnancy. This includes the first few weeks of
pregnancy when you might not even know you are pregnant. Drinking alcohol can cause serious health
problems for your baby, including birth defects. Additionally, do not take opioids, which are drugs that
are often used to treat pain. Opioid use during pregnancy can lead to neonatal abstinence syndrome,
preterm birth and may cause birth defects. Consult your physician before stopping or changing any
Find more resources to support your family across the lifespan at marchofdimes.org/birthdefects and cdc.gov/birthdefects.
Understanding Common Birth Defects
Cleft lip and cleft palate are birth defects in a baby’s lip and mouth that can be repaired by surgery.
Additional surgery, special dental care and speech therapy may be needed as the child gets older.
Clubfoot is a birth defect of the foot where a baby’s foot turns inward, so the bottom of the foot faces
sideways or up. Clubfoot doesn’t improve without treatment, such as pointing, stretching, casting the
foot or using braces. With early treatment, most children with clubfoot can walk, run and play without
Congenital heart defects (CHDs) are heart conditions babies are born with. They can affect how the heart
looks, how it works or both. CHDs are the most common types of birth defects. Babies with critical CHDs,
which can cause serious health problems or death, need surgery or other treatment within the first year
Hearing loss is a common birth defect that can happen when any part of the ear isn’t working in the usual
way and may affect a baby’s ability to develop speech, language and social skills. Some babies with
hearing loss may need hearing aids, medicine, surgery or speech therapy.
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