Birth defects happen to one of every 33 babies born in the United States. Nearly 120,000 babies are affected by these critical and costly conditions each year.

Birth defects range from mild to severe changes that are present at birth. They can affect almost any part of the body and may change how the body looks or functions. The expected lifespan of an infant with a birth defect depends on the severity of the defect and what body part(s) is affected.

A birth defect can be found before birth, at birth or any time after birth. Most are found within the first year of life. A birth defect such as a cleft lip is easy to see but others (hearing loss or heart defect) are diagnosed using special tests or procedures.

The cause is unknown for most birth defects. Scientists believe they are caused by a complex mix of factors that include our genes, our behaviors and things in the environment such as pollution. They don’t fully know how these factors can work together to cause birth defects.

Birth defects can occur during any stage of pregnancy, but most happen in the first three months, when the baby’s internal organs are forming. Other defects occur later in pregnancy as tissues and organs continue to grow and develop.

One of the most heart-breaking – yet preventable – birth defects is fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD). This range of problems is caused by a mother who drinks alcohol during her pregnancy.

Drinking during pregnancy can cause miscarriage, stillbirth, prematurity and other serious birth defects, with FASD being the most dangerous. FASD is the only birth defect that can be completely avoided by the mother’s decision not to drink during pregnancy.

FASD can cause physical, mental and behavior problems and learning disabilities that affect infants for the rest of their lives. FASD affects nearly 40,000 newborns annually. In the United States we spend $6 billion every year to treat the problems caused by FASD. The lifetime costs for one individual with FASD exceeds $2 million. We cannot even begin to measure the human toll it takes.

Preventing birth defects

A woman’s partner, family, friends and doctors can be powerful influences on her decision not to drink during pregnancy. FASD can be 100% prevented. Don’t be silent; start conversations with women of childbearing age about the lifelong heartbreak of drinking during pregnancy.

Screening people for alcohol use – called alcohol use disorder (AUD) screening – is one of the most successful preventive health services. Treating people with AUD can greatly improve their health and save money. Unfortunately, it is one of the least used preventive health services. About 20% of people who visit their primary care doctor have high-risk alcohol use or AUD. Without screenings, these disorders are commonly overlooked. Overlooking them in a pregnant woman, or a woman planning a pregnancy, can be a life-long tragedy for her baby.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), these are some of the behaviors that can increase the chances of having a baby born with a birth defect:

  • Smoking, drinking alcohol, or taking certain “street” drugs during pregnancy
  • Having certain medical conditions, such as being obese or having uncontrolled diabetes before and during pregnancy
  • Taking certain medications, including a drug used to treat severe acne
  • Having someone in your family with a birth defect
  • Being an older mother, typically over 34 years of age

Having one or more of these risks does not mean your baby will have a birth defect. It only means the chances are much higher with these risks. Women can have a baby with a birth defect even when they don’t have any of these risks.

It is important to talk to your doctor about what you can do to lower your risk. These are some of the key things you can do to increase your chance of having a healthy baby, including:

  • Keep all your doctor appointments and start prenatal care as soon as you think you might be pregnant.
  • Take 400 mcg. of folic acid every day, starting at least one month before getting pregnant. Folic acid can help prevent major birth defects of the baby’s developing brain and spine. It will help prevent anencephaly (baby is born without parts of the brain and skull) and spina bifida (failure of the spine to form properly causing physical and intellectual disabilities). Women can get folic acid from fortified foods or supplements, or a combination of the two, in addition to a varied diet rich in folate.
  • Never drink alcohol in any form – beer, wine or liquor. There is no safe amount that a pregnant woman can drink or any time in the pregnancy when it’s safe to drink.
  • Never smoke and avoid being around other smokers. The dangers of smoking tobacco during pregnancy include preterm birth, infant death and birth defects such as cleft palate. Even being around tobacco smoke puts you and your pregnancy at risk for problems. It’s best to quit smoking beforegetting pregnant. If you’re already pregnant, quit smoking as early as possible to help protect against health problems for your baby, such as low birth weight.
  • Avoid marijuana and other “street” drugs to help prevent a preterm birth, low birth weight, or other birth defects. We know of no safe level of marijuana use during pregnancy. Women using medical marijuana should speak with their doctor about an alternative therapy during pregnancy.
  • Prevent infections before and during pregnancy. The CDC issues these specific warnings to prevent infections. Don’t travel to areas known to have the Zika virus. Use condoms every time you have sex if your partner has traveled to areas with Zika. Wash your hands frequently. Avoid contact with the saliva or pee of babies and young children to avoid a common virus that can cause birth defects. Don’t drink unpasteurized milk or foods made from it. Do not touch or change dirty cat litter or wear gloves and wash your hands afterwards. Stay away from wild or pet rodents and their droppings. Get tested for sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) and protect yourself from them. Discuss vaccinations with your doctor. Avoid crowds and people who have an infection.
  • Avoid getting overheated and treat fever promptly. Getting in a hot tub can increase your core temperature excessively. Overheating increases the risk for having a baby with neural tube defects such as spina bifida.
  • Don’t stop or start any medications, prescription, over-the-counter medications, or dietary or herbal supplements without first checking with your doctor.
  • Get medical conditions under control, especially if you are overweight or have diabetes. A body mass index (BMI) of 30 or higher can have serious complications during pregnancy and increase the risk of birth defects. Having diabetes also increases the chances of a birth defect and can also cause serious complications for the mother.
  • Ask about any vaccinations (shots) you may need before or during pregnancy. The CDC says most vaccinations are safe during pregnancy. Some vaccinations, such as the flu vaccine and the Tdap vaccine are recommended during pregnancy. Some vaccines protect women against infections that can cause birth defects. Having the right vaccinations at the right time can help keep you and your baby healthy.

If you’re pregnant or thinking about having a baby, it is important for you to make a commitment to yourself and your future child to get healthy and stay as healthy as you can. It’s best for you and the first step on the journey to be the best parent you can.

For more information, click on the CDC’s website here.

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