Back to Living Real Change

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 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 Madison Brandt, M.D.

Birth defects are congenital structural or genetic conditions that cause health and developmental complications. Birth defects occur in approximately 3-5% of live births. They are more common in stillborn miscarriages. It is also the top cause of death in children younger than one-year-old. “Birth defects happen while the baby is still developing in the mother’s womb,” says Dr. Brandt. “Some birth defects are caused by genes that are passed from parents to children or chromosomal abnormalities. A small number of birth defects are caused by exposures during pregnancy.”

Among the most common of birth defects are:

  • Heart defects (1 in 100 to 200 babies are affected)
  • Club foot (1 in 500 births)
  • Neural tube defects, like spina bifida (1 in 2,700 births)
  • Cleft palate or cleft lip (1 in 1,500-to-2,800 births)
  • Genetic disorders, such as Down syndrome (1 in 707 births)

Thanks to advanced ultrasound technology, many birth defects like heart conditions can be detected while the baby is still in the womb, says Timothy Villegas, M.D. If a physician suspects a heart defect, he or she can order a fetal echocardiogram and potentially recommend treatments for the baby while it is still in the womb, Dr. Villegas says.

“We may send the mother to a high-risk maternal fetal medicine doctor,” says Dr. Villegas. “Some babies can undergo treatment while in utero while others require surgery after birth.” 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. Brandt 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 for consultation. We’ll go over medical history and make sure any health conditions like obesity, hypertension or diabetes are well controlled before pregnancy.”

Women who may become pregnant should begin taking a daily prenatal vitamin with 400 mg of folic acid. “You should start a prenatal vitamin with folic acid at least one month before becoming pregnant,” she says. “You can also start in the early stages of pregnancy to help reduce the risk of a neural tube defect.”

“Women who are pregnant or trying to become pregnant should also avoid alcohol, tobacco and recreational drugs,” Dr. Villegas cautions. “Certain prescription drugs may also jeopardize a baby’s health, so discuss all medications you are taking with your Obstetrician prior to conception if possible.”

Prevent infections

Certain infections can increase the risk of birth defects during pregnancy so Dr. Brandt recommends the following tips to help prevent illness.

  • Wash your hands and stay up to date with vaccinations.
  • Pregnant women should avoid eating undercooked meat or unwashed vegetables. They should also take caution if they handle animal feces, especially from cats that go outdoors as these can increase the risk of infection with toxoplasmosis.
  • If working with young children, pregnant women should take steps to avoid infections like wearing gloves when changing diapers.
  • Zika is a virus which is transmitted through an infected mosquito bite and can also be sexually transmitted. You should be aware of the precautions and recommendations if you or your partner is traveling to countries with risk of Zika.

Healthy mom, healthy baby

“Women should try to optimize all health conditions before getting pregnant,” says Dr. Brandt. “By maintaining a healthy weight and controlling medical conditions like diabetes, women can help decrease the risk of birth defects.”

It is important to incorporate regular exercise into your day-to-day routine. “Staying active is good for both you and your baby,” she says. “Start slow – go for a walk outside or get on the treadmill. Avoid starting any new strenuous exercise programs while pregnant.”

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 have a healthy pregnancy and baby. It’s important for partners to be a good support system because reduced stress plays a role in having a healthy baby.”

The cause of many birth defects is still unknown, but experts are making progress to help with early detection and prevention, says Dr. Brandt. “Birth defects are common, and while not all birth defects can be prevented women, can increase their chances of a healthy pregnancy by planning ahead and adopting healthy behaviors before becoming pregnant and during pregnancy.”

For more information on healthy pregnancy, visit Piedmont Women's Services.

Need to make an appointment with a Piedmont physician? Save time, book online.

Related Stories

Schedule your appointment online

Piedmont App

Download the Piedmont Now app

  • Directions
  • Indoor Hospital Navigation
  • Find & Save Physicians
  • Online Scheduling

Download the app today!

Get the Piedmont Now on Google Play Get the Piedmont Now on iTunes App Store