Healthy Pregnancy: What You Can Do to Help Prevent Birth Defects

National Birth Defects Prevention Month

Every four and a half minutes, a baby in the United States is born with a birth defect. Birth defects are very common and range from mild to severe. Although the cause of all birth defects is not known, they are most often linked to a variety of environmental and genetic factors. While some birth defects are genetic and cannot be prevented, it is always in your best interest to educate yourself about the risks and take as many precautions as possible to protect your child. January is National Birth Defects Prevention Month, so we have put together a list of do’s and don’ts to help you protect yourself and your unborn child. Today also marks the beginning of National Folic Acid Awareness Week, which brings us to the first item on our DO list:

DO’s

  • Take a daily dose of 400 mcg (micrograms) of folic acid

Because of how important folic acid is to early development, physicians recommend all woman who are of child-bearing age and are sexually active take daily folic acid. Folic acid helps prevent birth defects in the brain and spine (such as spina bifida and anencephaly). Major spinal and brain defects most often occur three to four weeks after conception before most women know they are pregnant, which is why it is important to take folic acid even if you are not trying to conceive. Most multi-vitamins contain the recommended dosage of folic acid, but be sure to check the ingredients to make sure you are getting the full 400 mcg. Folic acid is a supplement also contained in fortified foods such as some pastas, rice, bread, and cereals.

  • Catch up on all your vaccinations

Vaccines that do not contain live viruses are completely safe for pregnant women and they can be crucial to helping protect your child, both before and after birth. Either before or during each pregnancy, you should receive the flu vaccine. During the last three months of each pregnancy, you should also receive the whooping cough vaccine (Tdap). If you are traveling abroad, your physician may also recommend other vaccines during your pregnancy. Pregnant women should avoid vaccines that contain live viruses like the MMR vaccine, the chicken pox vaccine, and the shingles vaccine.

  • Become a healthy weight

If you are trying to conceive, you should try to reach a healthy weight before you become pregnant. Being under or overweight can lead to birth defects and other pregnancy complications, including preterm birth. Obesity specifically has been shown to put unborn babies at risk for birth defects involving the spinal cord and brain. Depending on your current weight and lifestyle, your physician may recommend a variety of options to bring you to a healthy weight.

DON’TS

  • DON’T miss visits with your doctor

Both before and during your pregnancy, it is important to keep your regular appointments with your doctor. They will monitor your health and make recommendations to keep your pregnancy on track. It is also crucial to discuss any medications you want to start or stop taking before or during your pregnancy with your doctor. They may be able to offer alternatives or let you know about any potentially dangerous side effects.

  • DON’T use alcohol, tobacco, or other illicit substances

If you currently use alcohol, tobacco, or other illicit substances including marijuana, you should stop before you become pregnant. There is no safe known amount of alcohol, tobacco, or illicit substances during pregnancy. All of these substances can lead to birth defects and other pregnancy complications including low birth weight, preterm birth, miscarriage, and stillbirth. Continued usage can also lead to long-term health and behavioral issues for both mother and child.

  • DON’T avoid being tested for STDs

Typically, your physician will screen for STIs like chlamydia, hepatitis B, syphilis, and HIV during your first prenatal visit. However, if you did not receive testing then, it is important to be screened as soon as possible. STDs can have a lasting impact on both you and your child’s health. Infections like HIV and Hepatitis B and C can be passed to the baby during delivery. Other infections such as syphilis, gonorrhea, and chlamydia are known to cause issues during pregnancy including low birth weight, preterm delivery, and complications with multiple other organs.

  • DON’T skip learning about your family’s medical history

Many birth defects are genetic, meaning they are passed down in your family tree. While these cannot be prevented, you can speak to your doctor to prepare for any issues you may face. If you or your partner’s family has a history of birth defects or other pregnancy-related medical issues, discuss this history with your doctor. They may refer you to a genetic counselor.

In addition to having a conversation about your family’s medical history, you should also speak to your doctor about any prior illnesses or conditions you have experienced. Diabetes, seizure disorders, and high blood pressure have all been linked to birth defects. This could inform your future pregnancy experience and your doctor should be prepared to handle those complications.

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