How To Avoid Birth Defects During Pregnancy

Birth defects are not uncommon in the U.S. Many of us have friends or family members who have experience with one. But how common are they? We know that every pregnancy has a 3-5% risk of developing a birth defect, and almost 120K infants each year are affected. Although these numbers are relatively low, they can still be a cause of concern for expectant mothers.

If you are planning to become pregnant, or are already expecting, you may be wondering if there is anything you can to prevent birth defects from developing. While you can’t eliminate every risk associated with pregnancy, there are many things you can do to help increase your chances of delivering a healthy baby. Let’s take a closer look at what we mean when we talk about birth defects, and how you can be proactive in helping to prevent them!

What is a birth defect?

Birth defects are structural or functional abnormalities that are congenital, which means they are present at birth. These abnormalities can affect nearly every part of the body. Depending on the type of defect, the way the body looks, works, or both can be impacted. The most common type of structural defect is a congenital heart defect. Other common defects include spina bifida, cleft lip and palate, clubfoot, and congenital hip dysplasia.

Most congenital defects are identified in the first year of a child’s life, though we’re able to detect some in utero with the use of advanced imaging. Some can be seen through simple observation, while others are only identified through specific testing. The long-term prognosis for a child with a congenital defect depends on the severity of the defect itself and which parts of the body are affected by it. 

What causes birth defects?

Experts believe something called “multifactorial inheritance” is responsible for the majority of cases. This term describes a combination of genetic and environmental factors. To put it in the simplest terms, there are many different things that can cause congenital defects. Although we’re unable to pinpoint the exact cause of most congenital defects, there are multiple risk factors we can consider when advising women on this subject.

If you are considering becoming pregnant, we encourage you to schedule a preconception visit with us to assess your individual risk factors for carrying a child with a congenital defect. We can then pursue various strategies to address any risk factors. If you’re already pregnant when you schedule a visit with us, we can use genetic testing, ultrasounds, and other monitoring to ensure a healthy pregnancy and safe delivery.

What steps can women take during pregnancy to help avoid birth defects?

When you’re pregnant, you share everything with your baby. One of the simplest things you can do for you and your baby’s body is take a daily folic acid supplementation or daily prenatal vitamins beginning at least three months prior to conception and throughout the pregnancy. These products contain a variety of vitamins and minerals to provide your baby with the nutrients essential for healthy development. These include folic acid, iron, calcium, and vitamin D. Other steps you can take include the following:

  • reaching a healthy weight prior to pregnancy. Obesity is linked to serious conditions like diabetes and chronic hypertension, and may heighten the risk of congenital defects.
  • staying up to date on the vaccinations you need before, during, and after pregnancy. For example, the MMR vaccine should ideally be given at least a month prior to conception. You should also receive a TDaP vaccine during your pregnancy to help protect both you and your baby against pertussis (whooping cough.)
  • consulting with a high-risk obstetrician prior to conception if you have any chronic medical conditions. Early prenatal care with a trusted provider is essential! You’ll be able to discuss the implications of your medical condition during pregnancy and assess whether any medications you’re on will be safe to continue. 
  • switch to safe medications prior to conception if you have chronic high blood pressure and are currently taking any ACE inhibitors for chronic hypertension. These carry an increased risk of kidney defects and low amniotic fluid during pregnancy. 
  • avoid alcohol during pregnancy. We don’t know if there is a safe level of alcohol to consume during pregnancy, so the general recommendation is to avoid it altogether. Alcohol-related birth defects can be individual or grouped together in a fetal alcohol syndrome diagnosis, including dysmorphic facial features, low birth weight, and neurobehavioral impairment.
  • stop smoking. Regular tobacco use has been linked to an increased risk of specific birth defects like low birth weight, spontaneous abortion, and placental complications. It has also been associated with Sudden Infant Death Syndrome.
  • avoid opioid exposure. Opioid use during pregnancy can put newborns at risk for Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome, which causes withdrawal symptoms after birth due to exposure to the opioids in the womb. If you are pregnant and using opioids, there are treatment options available to help you. Please speak to your obstetrician as soon as possible. If you’re pregnant or trying to get pregnant while using any other type of illicit drug, we encourage you to reach out for support immediately. Your baby’s life may depend on it. 
  • schedule a preconception consultation with a genetic counselor if you or your partner have a personal or family history of a particular birth defect. The counselor will identify any potential risks to a future pregnancy, and will also discuss methods for reducing these risks when possible. 

Take steps to protect your pregnancy with exceptional care from MOGA

There is no foolproof way to prevent every known birth defect, but there are ways to minimize the risk of them. When you follow the guidelines above and seek obstetric care from a trusted provider both before and during pregnancy, you’ll be giving your baby the best chance at a healthy life. MOGA helps women across the Mid-South achieve safe pregnancies and deliveries every day. Get in touch today to connect with one of our trusted providers!