Approximately 120,000 babies are born with birth defects in the United States each year. Birth defects can cause structural or functional abnormalities at birth resulting in physical or mental disabilities. Sometimes birth defects can be fatal. Most birth defects are identified within the first year of life and can range from the easy to see, such as a cleft lip, to heart problems that require special testing.
Birth defects usually occur in the first three months of pregnancy. Approximately 70 percent of birth defects occur for no known reason, while the remaining 30 percent may result from genetic problems, chromosomal abnormalities or environmental factors. Some birth defects may be caused by a combination of factors. Among the most common birth defects are heart defects, cleft lip/palate, Down syndrome and spina bifida (open spine).
A woman who is planning to become pregnant, or is currently pregnant, can take steps to reduce her risk of having a baby with a birth defect.
- Have a pre-pregnancy examination to identify any possible health conditions that could cause complications during pregnancy, such as diabetes, epilepsy or high blood pressure.
- Get early and regular pre-natal care.
- Be current on inoculations. If vaccinations are needed, especially for German measles (rubella) or chickenpox that can cause miscarriage or birth defects, a woman should wait one month before becoming pregnant.
- Review personal and family medical history to assess the possibility of any inherited condition such as Tay-Sachs disease (nervous system disorder) or sickle cell anemia (blood disorder).
- Take a daily multivitamin that contains 400 micrograms of folic acid to help prevent defects of the brain and spinal cord.
- Eat a healthy diet that includes plenty of foods that are high in folic acid such as enriched grain products, beans, leafy green vegetables and orange juice. Do not eat undercooked meats, raw eggs, or fish that have high amounts of mercury (shark, swordfish, king mackerel and tilefish).
- Avoid second-hand smoke and do not smoke, drink alcohol or use any drugs, even over-the-counter medications or herbal supplements. Medicines or supplements should be taken only with physician approval.
- Stay away from all rodents, such as hamsters, mice and guinea pigs. Do not change a cat’s litter box since it can be a source of toxoplasmosis, an infection that can cause birth defects.
- Maintain a healthy weight before and during pregnancy. Being overweight can lead to complications such as high blood pressure or diabetes; being underweight could result in a low birth weight for the baby.
- Avoid exposure to certain types of radiation, such as X-rays, and chemical or toxic substances, such as lead or pesticides.
Some women have a greater risk of having a child with a birth defect. A woman over the age of 35 has a higher chance of having a baby with Down syndrome. A woman who drinks or smokes increases the risk of having a baby with birth defects. For more information about preventing birth defects, talk with your doctor or visit the March of Dimes Web site at www.marchofdimes.com.