Birth Defects Prevention Month: What Can You Do to Protect Your Unborn Child

Mother holding newborn baby

Each year in the United States, about 1 in 33 babies is born with a birth defect. Of those, congenital heart defects, spina bifida, cleft lip, and cleft palates are among the most common. While it’s impossible to entirely eliminate the risk of birth defects, there are steps you can take both before and during pregnancy to lower your risk.

January is Birth Defect Prevention Month, so we’ve prepared a list of ways for you to educate yourself about the risks associated with birth defects and what you can do to protect your future children. 


1. Study Up on Your Family History

Talk to family members on both sides of your family to learn about your partner’s and your own family medical history. This will help you begin to build a plan around your pregnancy. You may learn about a genetic condition or a birth defect in your family you didn’t know about. Armed with that knowledge, you’re better prepared to make informed decisions about your pregnancy. This information is also incredibly important to share with your doctor before and during your pregnancy.

2. Visit Your Doctor (Yes, Even Before You Get Pregnant)

In regards to something as life-changing as having a child, there is nothing more valuable than knowing all the facts and making a plan. If you and your partner decide to try and conceive a child, schedule an appointment with your physician.  They can provide recommendations about keeping your future child healthy based on your own medical history.

3. Start Taking Folic Acid

Folic Acid, a B vitamin, is an essential vitamin for all women, not just those who are pregnant. Folic Acid can be consumed via a vitamin tablet and/or by following a diet that includes foods high in folate or enriched with folic acid. The CDC recommends that women take 400 micrograms of folic acid every day. For pregnant women, folic acid helps protect your baby against defects such as Spina Bifida or Anencephaly. 

4. Be Your Healthiest Self

Prioritizing your own physical and mental health before becoming pregnant can lower your risk of encountering pregnancy complications. For example, Type II diabetes increases the chance of birth defects. If you’re underweight, overweight, or have diabetes, talk to your doctor about making healthy lifestyle choices. Additionally, if you haven’t been tested for STDs, do so before becoming pregnant. This will prepare you to better plan for protecting your baby’s health.

5. Stop Taking Drugs

Other than some over-the-counter, prescribed medications, no drugs are safe to take during pregnancy. Even illicit drugs that may be legal in your area (e.g. Marijuana) can cause still-birth, premature birth, or problems with brain development. If you find it difficult to stop using illicit drugs, reach out for help to a healthcare provider or rehab center before becoming pregnant.

6. Stop Smoking Cigarettes

Smoking while pregnant is not safe for either the mother or unborn child. It brings with it an array of dangers that can not only affect fetal development but post-birth health issues. Babies’ whose mothers smoke while pregnant are more likely to be born with a cleft palate or cleft lip. Smoking also increases the risk of low birth-weight, early delivery, or problems with the placenta, which can result in bleeding or miscarriage.

7. Know the Risks About Your Own Medications 

If you’re currently taking medication or dietary and/or herbal supplements while trying to get pregnant, you’ll need to discuss them with your doctor. While many medications are safe to continue taking, there are some that have a history of causing birth defects or other pregnancy-related issues.

During pregnancy 

1. Stay Up to Date on Your Vaccinations

Following a vaccination schedule during pregnancy can keep both you and your developing baby healthy. You can be vaccinated during each pregnancy for both the flu and whopping cough, respectively. Before your pregnancy, make sure you’re up to date on all of your own vaccinations.

2. Don’t Skip Doctor’s Appointments

For the duration of your pregnancy, it’s important to regularly attend scheduled visits with your doctor. The physician will monitor and track the baby’s growth as well as your own health. These appointments can identify early indicators of birth defects or other birth-related issues, so it’s incredibly important to attend them.

3. Avoid Infections When Possible

Although “avoid infections” sounds like a broad commandment, there are specific steps you can take to make sure you stay healthy during your pregnancy. In addition to maintaining good hygiene practices, you can avoid people who are currently sick or who are unvaccinated. If you plan on traveling during your pregnancy, make sure that you’ve been vaccinated against all regional infections. The Zika virus specifically is responsible for a birth defect called microcephaly, in which the baby’s head and brain are smaller than they should be. If possible, you should not travel to Zika-infested areas while pregnant.

4. Keep a List of Foods and Drinks to Avoid

You should avoid alcohol during your pregnancy; no amount of alcohol has been proven safe to drink while pregnant. Alcohol can cause premature birth and a range of birth defects or conditions categorized under the umbrella of “Fetal Alcohol Syndrome.” Other items like raw or undercooked meat or unpasteurized cheese and milk can also contain bacteria that are harmful to a developing baby. 

5. Wash Your Hands Often

Washing your hands regularly can lower your risk of contracting an infection or virus that may affect your pregnancy.  Wash your hands thoroughly after:

  • Using the bathroom or changing a diaper
  • Playing with or caring for children
  • Being exposed to bodily fluids, like saliva
  • Being outside and being exposed to dirt/soil
  • Preparing or eating food
  • Touching pets or other animals
  • Being exposed to items that are considered “toxic” or “environmental contaminants”

6. Take a Break from Scooping the Cat Litter

Cat feces can contain a harmful parasite that causes toxoplasmosis. Although it’s not considered a birth defect, the parasite can cause issues like blindness or mental disability later in life for your child. Other animal stool can also contain viruses that can cause birth defects. If you have a cat or a rodent as a pet, have someone else change their litter or bedding while you’re pregnant.

7. Reach Out for Help if You Need It

If you find yourself struggling with mental health or physical health issues while pregnant, don’t hesitate to ask for help. If you feel uncomfortable talking to your doctor, reach out to a family member or friend who can guide you accessing the resources you may need. Your own health issues may be an indicator of your baby’s, so it’s always safest to leave nothing to chance.

If you’re looking for pre-natal or pre-conception care, visit Capital Women’s Care. Our staff are trained to walk you through the steps to keep yourself and your baby healthy during your pregnancy.

Our Mission

The providers of Capital Women's Care seek the highest quality medical and ethical standard in an environment that nurtures the spirit of caring for every woman.


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