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Moms-to-be can help prevent birth defects

Most parents would do anything to protect their child, but did you know you can help protect your baby from birth defects before you even become pregnant? Women who plan to conceive or who are already expecting can take precautions to reduce their child’s risk of being born with a birth defect, says Stacey Lindo, M.D., an obstetrician and gynecologist at Piedmont Obstetrics & Gynecology.

Birth defects can be serious and costly for both parents and babies. One in 33 babies is born with a birth defect and one in five infant deaths is caused by a birth defect. It is also the top cause of death in children less than one year old. “Birth defects happen while the baby is still developing in the mother’s womb,” says Dr. Lindo. “Most occur during the first three months of pregnancy when all of the baby’s organs are forming.” Among the most common birth defects are:

  • Heart defects (1 in 100 to 200 babies are affected)
  • Neural tube defects, like spina bifida (1 in 2,500 babies)
  • Cleft palate or cleft lip (1 in 700 to 1,000 babies)
  • Genetic disorders, such as Down syndrome (1 in 691 babies)

Many birth defects – such as Down syndrome or heart conditions – can be detected while the baby is still in the womb, thanks to ultrasound technology. If a physician suspects a heart defect, he or she can order a fetal echocardiogram and recommend treatments for the baby while it is still in the womb.

“We may send the mother to a special, high-risk doctor,” says Dr. Lindo. “Some babies have to be born at a heart center, for example, rather than a regular hospital delivery room.” Other problems, such as hearing loss, may not be discovered until after the baby is born or even years later.

Prevent birth defects before pregnancy

Dr. Lindo says there are several things women of childbearing age can do to reduce their future child’s risk of birth defects. “The biggest thing we recommend is preconception counseling,” she says. “You may not need to go to an obstetrician yet, but you can come in and talk. We’ll go over medical history and make sure any health conditions like obesity, hypertension or diabetes are under control before pregnancy.”

Women who might become pregnant should begin taking a daily prenatal vitamin with 400 mg of folic acid. “If you’re not already taking folic acid, start at least one month before becoming pregnant,” she says. “You can also start in the early stages of pregnancy to reduce the risk of a neural tube defect.”

Women who are pregnant or trying to become pregnant should also decrease or eliminate alcohol, tobacco and street drugs. “People may think they can drink a little, but we haven’t been able to link how much alcohol can cause fetal alcohol syndrome,” she explains. Certain prescription drugs can jeopardize a baby’s health, so check with your doctor about any medications you are currently taking.

Prevent infections

Expectant mothers can pass infections to their unborn child, so Dr. Lindo recommends the following tips to prevent illness.

“Wash your hands, don’t share food during flu season, get a flu shot and keep your vaccines up to date,” she says. “Pregnant women should not change cat litter, because that can lead to an infection called toxoplasmosis." Pregnant women should not consume raw or undercooked meat or fish, as these foods can also lead to infection.

Healthy mom, healthy baby

“Women should make sure they’re at their healthiest before getting pregnant,” says Dr. Lindo. “By exercising and eating a healthy diet, mom is improving her health, which improves baby’s health. A healthy mom hopefully will have a healthy baby.”

She recommends talking with your obstetrician before beginning an exercise program. “If you weren’t a marathon runner before, now is not the time,” she says. “Start slow – go for a walk or get on the treadmill. Avoid any activity where it’s hard to breathe, which is not good while you’re pregnant. Yoga can be challenging as your balance changes, so be careful when practicing.”

Stress management is also a key to good health, so having support from your partner, family and friends is crucial. “Do everything you can to make sure you have a healthy pregnancy and baby. It’s important for partners to be a good support system because stress plays a role in having a healthy baby.”  

The causes of many birth defects are still unknown, but experts are making new progress to help prevent them, says Dr. Lindo. “What we’ve found is the cost of birth defects is at least $8 billion a year,” she explains.

“Babies born with birth defects have a greater chance of illness and long-term disability. Thirty percent of pediatric admissions at a hospital are due to birth defects. A lot of people don’t realize that. Something as easy as taking folic acid or not drinking alcohol can prevent them." For more information on healthy pregnancy, visit Piedmont Women's Services.

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