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
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.
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
This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical
care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.