Healthy Choices Help Prevent Birth Defects

Birth Defects Prevention Month

Starting or increasing your family begins through initiating appropriate prenatal health practices and choices to prevent birth defect risks.

Every year, about 3% to 6% of infants worldwide are born with a serious birth defect. In the U.S. alone each year, birth defects affect 1 in every 33 babies, or about 3% of all babies born each year. Birth defects are the leading cause of infant deaths, accounting for 20% of all infant deaths in the U.S.

Birth defects are life-altering conditions for babies and their families and can affect babies regardless of where they are born, their socioeconomic status, their race or ethnicity.

January is National Birth Defects Prevention Month with National Folic Acid Awareness Week designated January 5 through January 11. Your local Capital Women’s Care team wants to share vital information to help you optimize you and your baby’s health, including the importance of folic acid, to help reduce birth defects risks so you have a healthy pregnancy resulting in giving birth to a healthy baby.

Preconception Health

Women planning pregnancy need to take care of themselves before trying to conceive. Preconception health means knowing how health conditions and risk factors could affect you or your unborn baby should you become pregnant.

Some food, habits, health problems and medicines can harm your baby, even before conception.

It’s important to speak with your doctor before you become pregnant to understand what to do to prepare your body for conception and pregnancy.

Women age 35 years and older face increased risk of birth defects should they become pregnant.

Ideally, women should prepare at least 3 months for pregnancy prior to trying to conceive.

5 Important Preconception Health Steps

To reduce risk of birth defects, follow these important preconception health guidelines:

Take 400 to 800 micrograms (400 to 800 mcg or 0.4 to 0.8 mg) of folic acid every day for at least 3 months before getting pregnant to lower your risk of some birth defects of baby’s brain and spine.

You can get folic acid from some foods, but it’s difficult to get those folic acid requirements solely from your diet. Taking a vitamin that contains folic acid ensures you get the appropriate recommended dose.

Stop smoking and drinking alcohol.

Ask your doctor for help. Smoking and drinking alcohol while pregnant transports unhealthy substances and toxins to your unborn baby, increasing risks of birth defects.

If you have a medical condition, be sure it is under control through doctor supervision.

Some conditions in women which can affect baby if not treated properly include asthma, diabetes, depression, high blood pressure, obesity, thyroid disease or epilepsy.

Be sure your vaccinations are up to date.

Some illnesses, if untreated or undiagnosed, may be passed from mother to baby during delivery.

Talk to your doctor about any over the counter and prescription medicines you are taking.

These medicines also include dietary or herbal supplements. Some medicines aren’t safe to take before or during pregnancy. Also, stopping medicine you need can also be harmful to you and your unborn baby. If you’re unsure, ask your doctor.

Avoid contact with toxic substances or materials at work and at home that could be harmful.

Stay away from chemicals and cat or rodent feces.

Additional Health Precautions

Being proactive about you and your unborn baby’s health is paramount to having a healthy pregnancy and delivering a healthy baby.

Some additional health precautions include:

Get early and regular prenatal care.

Whether you are experiencing your first pregnancy or third, health care is extremely important. Your doctor will check to make sure you and your baby are healthy during each visit. If any problems arise, early action greatly benefits both you and your baby’s health.

Take a prenatal vitamin with 400 to 800 micrograms (400 to 800 mcg or 0.4 to 0.8 mg) of folic acid daily.

Folic acid is most important in the early stages of pregnancy; however, you should continue taking folic acid throughout your pregnancy. If you are considering becoming pregnant, you should take folic acid, as folic acid is important in your diet during pregnancy as it helps prevent serious birth defects of the spine and brain of your unborn baby.

Birth defects of the brain and spine happen in the very early stages of pregnancy, often before a woman knows she is pregnant. By the time she finds out she is pregnant, it may be too late to prevent those birth defects.

During a baby’s early development, folic acid helps form the neural tube. Folic acid is very important because it can help prevent some major birth defects of the baby’s brain (anencephaly) and spine (spina bifida).

You can augment your vitamin containing folic acid by adding fortified foods, such as breads, pastas, and cereals, into your diet. Folate is found naturally in leafy green vegetables, oranges and beans.

Ask your doctor before stopping any medicines or starting any new over the counter or prescription medications.

Some medicines aren’t safe to take during pregnancy. Keep in mind even over-the-counter medicines and herbal products may cause side effects or other problems. But not using medicines you need could also be harmful. Discuss medication questions you have with your doctor.

Avoid x-rays.

If you must have dental work or diagnostic tests, tell your dentist or doctor you are pregnant so extra care is provided.

Guard against infections.

Some infections before and during pregnancy can hurt both you and your developing baby. They can cause serious illness, birth defects and lifelong disabilities, such as hearing loss or learning problems.

Get a flu shot.

Pregnant women are susceptible to becoming very sick from the flu, oftentimes requiring hospitalization.

Prioritize Healthy Nutrition

It’s especially vital for pregnant women to have a healthy diet, as foods provide necessary nutrients for baby’s growth and development.

  • Eat a variety of healthy foods. Choose fruits, vegetables, whole grains, calcium-rich foods and foods low in saturated fat. Also make sure to drink plenty of fluids, especially water.
  • Get all the nutrients you need each day, including iron. Getting enough iron prevents you from getting anemia, which is linked to preterm birth and low birth weight. Eating various healthy foods help you get the nutrients your baby needs.
  • Protect yourself and your baby from food-borne illnesses, including toxoplasmosis and listeria. Wash all fruits and vegetables before eating. Don't eat uncooked or undercooked meats or fish. Always handle, clean, cook, eat and store foods properly.
  • Avoid eating fish containing high amounts of mercury, including swordfish, king mackerel, shark and tilefish.

Maintain a Healthy Lifestyle

It’s important for women to maintain a healthy lifestyle, especially throughout pregnancy. Your overall health and lifestyle choices directly impact your unborn baby’s health.

Follow these important lifestyle tips:

Gain a healthy amount of weight.

Your doctor can tell you how much weight gain you should aim for during pregnancy. Women who are obese when they get pregnant have a higher risk of having a baby with serious birth defects of the brain and spine (neural tube defects), some heart defects, and other birth defects.

Don't smoke (or vape), drink alcohol or use illicit drugs.

These can cause long-term harm or death to your baby. Ask your doctor for assistance to quit.

Smoking in the month before getting pregnant and throughout pregnancy increases the chance of premature birth, certain birth defects (like cleft lip, cleft palate, or both) and infant death. Quitting smoking before getting pregnant is best. However, for women who are already pregnant, quitting as early as possible can still help protect against some health problems for mother and baby.

Drinking alcohol during pregnancy can cause baby to be born with fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASDs). Pregnant women should not drink alcohol any time during pregnancy. Women also should not drink alcohol if they are trying to get pregnant or if they are sexually active and do not use effective birth control.

Unless your doctor tells you not to, try to get at least 2 hours and 30 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity weekly.

It's best to plan your workouts throughout the week. If you worked out regularly before pregnancy, you can keep up your activity level if it doesn’t affect your health and you talk to your doctor about your activity level throughout your pregnancy. Learn more about how to have a fit pregnancy.

Don't take very hot baths or use hot tubs or saunas.

Doing so can lead to neural tube defects in baby during early pregnancy stages.

Get plenty of sleep and find ways to control stress.

Expand your knowledge.

Read books, watch videos, go to a childbirth class and talk with moms you know to prepare for birth and parenthood.

Ask your doctor about childbirth education classes for you and your partner.

Classes can help you prepare for your baby’s birth.

Establish a Safe Environment

There are many things within the environment pregnant women need to guard against, as some can be harmful to an unborn baby. Environmental things to watch for include:

  • Stay away from chemicals like insecticides, solvents (like some cleaners or paint thinners), lead, mercury, and paint (including paint fumes). Not all products have pregnancy warnings on labels. If you're unsure about a product’s safety, ask your doctor before using it. Talk to your doctor if you are worried that chemicals used in your workplace might be harmful.
  • If you have a cat, ask your doctor about toxoplasmosis. This infection is caused by a parasite sometimes found in cat feces. If not treated toxoplasmosis can cause birth defects. You can lower your risk by avoiding cat litter and wearing gloves when gardening.
  • Avoid contact with rodents, including pet rodents, and with their urine, droppings or nesting material. Rodents can carry a virus that can be harmful or even deadly to your unborn baby.
  • Take steps to avoid illness. Wash your hands frequently, practice safe food preparation and cooking and avoid contact with people who have a contagious ailment.
  • Avoid secondhand smoke.

Your local Capital Women’s Care team is here to optimize you and your baby’s healthcare, from initiating a personalized preconception health plan through all stages of your pregnancy to post-partum and obstetrical care once your baby is born and beyond. Our compassionate family of professionals is dedicated to you and your family through our quality, comprehensive healthcare services to optimize your health and longevity of life.

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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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