Making Healthy Choices to Help Prevent Birth Defects


January is National Birth Defects Prevention Month. Nationally, an infant is born every four and a half minutes with a birth defect. That’s about one out of every 33 babies according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Unfortunately, the causes of roughly 70 percent of birth defects are unknown. While the direct causes of birth defects may not be fully understood, there are known risk factors. Health experts know that many birth defects happen during early pregnancy, often before a woman knows she is pregnant. Drinking alcohol during pregnancy, smoking during pregnancy, low blood folate levels, poorly controlled blood sugar levels in diabetic mothers, and maternal infections are all associated with the increased risk of having a baby born with a birth defect.

Babies born to mothers who smoke cigarettes are more likely to be born premature and at a low birth weight. They are also more likely to be born with certain birth defects (cleft lip or cleft palate). It’s never too late to quit smoking.

When a pregnant woman drinks, the alcohol in her system passes to the baby through the placenta and umbilical cord. Drinking alcohol during pregnancy can cause miscarriage and stillbirth. Drinking can also cause fetal alcohol syndrome, which is a serious condition involving growth problems, abnormal facial features, central nervous system impairment, and intellectual disabilities.

Diabetes is a chronic disease affecting an increasing number of mothers. For pregnant women with type I and type II diabetes, poorly controlled blood sugar levels can increase the risk of birth defects, stillbirths, and preterm births.certain birth defects.

While not all birth defects can be prevented, there are steps that new mothers-to-be can take to increase the chance of having a healthy baby. The best time to start preventing pregnancy related complications is before a woman becomes pregnant. Most of the baby’s vital organ and systems are formed in the first four to eight weeks of gestation, often before a woman knows she is pregnant. The majority of birth defects occur in this same period.Here are 5 important actions a woman can take to improve her baby’s health:

1. Take 400 micrograms of folic acid every day

·         Folic Acid is a B-complex vitamin that is proven to protect against some major birth defects of the brain and spine. Health experts suggest women begin taking a daily dose of 400 micrograms at least a full month prior to becoming pregnant and continue to take folic acid daily during pregnancy.

2. Make an appointment to see your healthcare provider when planning a pregnancy and begin prenatal care as early as possible.

3. Adopt healthy behaviors before pregnancy.

4. Avoid harmful substances, such as alcohol, tobacco, marijuana, illicit drugs, and certain medications.

5. Talk with your healthcare provider about any medications use, routine vaccines that are given before and during pregnancy, and ways to prevent infections.

Additional Resources to Support Healthy Pregnancies

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

The CDC’s National Center on Birth Defects and Developmental Disabilities (NCBDDD) strives to advance the health and well-being of our nation’s most vulnerable populations. Click here to view the website. 

MotherToBaby, a free service of the non-profit Organization of Teratology Information Specialists (OTIS)

Communicate directly with experts about exposures, like medications, vaccines and more, during pregnancy and breastfeeding by calling toll-free (866) 626-6847, texting questions to (855) 999-3525, live chatting or emailing  here

National Blood Donor Month

Some babies born with birth defects may spend a significant amount of time in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) and need blood transfusions as a part of their medical care. January is also National Blood Donor Month. The American Red Cross is encouraging folks who are willing and able to give blood. You can read more about its efforts here