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January is National Birth Defects Awareness Month, when we raise awareness for preventing and living with birth defects. As the leading cause of infant deaths, birth defects account for 20% of all infant deaths and affect about 3% of babies born every year.
We all want our babies to be healthy, and the best way to ensure that is to see your provider before you become pregnant.
“The ideal time to seek prenatal care is before you become pregnant and most women do not do that,” says Dr. Georges Sylvestre, assistant attending obstetrician and gynecologist at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital and assistant professor of clinical obstetrics and gynecology at Weill Cornell Medical College, Cornell University.
If you’re considering getting pregnant, talk with your provider about potential risk factors, including your current health status, any underlying medical coditions you may have, whether you smoke or drink, and any medications, vitamins or supplements you’re taking. These all factor into having a healthy baby.
Birth defects are physical changes present in a newborn baby that can affect almost any part or parts of the body like the heart, brain, feet or arms. They may affect how the body looks and works and they vary from mild to severe. How severe the defect is and where it is located can affect your baby’s lifespan.
Some of the more common examples of birth defects include spina bifida (spine defect), narrowing of the aorta (heart artery), pulmonary valve problems (controls blood flow from the heart to lungs), cleft lip or cleft palate (lip/mouth deformity), hearing loss, a foot deformity and Down syndrome.
If someone in your family was born with a birth defect, there is an increased risk that your baby may develop a defect. Many birth defects can be prevented by visiting your provider before becoming pregnant.
If you have diabetes, hypertension (high blood pressure), obesity, or live with anxiety or depression, it may affect your baby’s development. The extent of the condition and the medications you take to control the condition can cause birth defects.
For example, uncontrolled diabetes is a major contributor to birth defects.
“A woman with uncontrolled diabetes has a 10% to 15% risk of a serious heart defect or spinal defect in the baby. If we can control the diabetes before she becomes pregnant, I can bring the risk down to the regular population’s risk level, which is about 3%,” says Dr. Sylvestre.
Talk with your provider about your current medical conditions and moving to medications that are safer for your baby.
Accutane was a brand name for isotretinoin, a common drug prescribed to treat severe acne. Accutane as a brand is no longer prescribed, but isotretinoin still is. Isotretinoin carries a high risk of birth defects, miscarriage, and injury to your baby if taken while pregnant.
Birth defects from Zofran, a brand name for ondansetron, have occurred in less than 1% of studies and most often resulted in a cleft palate or heart defect. Zofran treats nausea and vomiting following surgery and morning sickness during pregnancy.
Recreational drugs like marijuana, cocaine, methamphetamine, heroin and other opiates are absorbed into your bloodstream and passed onto your baby in the womb. If you are addicted to any of these drugs, your baby can also be addicted. Birth defects caused by recreational drugs include premature birth, cognitive and behavioral issues, growth defects, low birth weight, hyperactivity, feeding problems, and sudden infant death syndrome.
Smoking and using tobacco products also should be avoided during pregnancy.
And mom isn’t the only person who needs to be careful about their drug intake. A recent study showed that a small percentage of babies whose fathers took metformin, a common Type 2 diabetes drug, within three months of conception were found to develop birth defects in male babies.
Be sure to talk with your provider about any medications you and the potential father of the baby are taking prior to becoming pregnant.
It is important to stay healthy and avoid infections before and during your pregnancy. Women who get certain infections during pregnancy have a higher risk of having a child with birth defects.
Common infections include the cytomegalovirus, toxoplasmosis and the Zika virus. With the cytomegalovirus, which spreads through body fluids, there may be no symptoms.
Toxoplasmosis is a parasitic infection that can be spread through contaminated food, like raw meat, contaminated water and cat feces. The Zika virus is commonly spread through mosquito bites and is linked to microcephaly in infants, which is a defect where the brain and skull are smaller than normal.
“Most healthy people with a healthy diet don't need much in terms of vitamin supplements,” says Dr. Sylvestre.
However, folate, a B vitamin (B9), is critical for the healthy development of your baby’s brain and spine. You can find folate naturally in foods like dark green leafy vegetables like spinach, Brussels sprouts, and broccoli, and also eggs, seafood, peanuts, sunflower seeds, whole grains, and fresh fruits and juices. Folic acid, which is added to foods and supplements, is also a form of folate and more easily absorbed by the body.
In addition to seeing your provider before becoming pregnant, there are things you can do to reduce the chance of your baby having a birth defect.
"Stay healthy, exercise. Don't take medication without consulting your provider. Take your folic acid. Get your vaccines up-to-date,” says Dr. Sylvestre.
If you’re trying to become pregnant and want to learn more about your risk of your unborn child developing birth defects, speak with your provider. Find a provider today.