Birth Defects: Can They Be Prevented?

Birth Defects

If you’re expecting or are planning a pregnancy, you want to know about birth defects and how you can reduce their chances. As the month of January is National Birth Defects Prevention Month, we’d like to highlight the causes of congenital disabilities and ways you can prevent them.

While we can’t always prevent every medical problem of this nature, we can learn as much as possible about them so that your baby will have the best possible start while they are still in the womb.


What Causes of Birth Defects?

The term birth defect (congenital abnormalities or developmental malformation) refers to a wide range of conditions, structural and functional, that can affect a child. Most birth defects occur randomly during the complicated process of cell growth and development. But in some cases, the cause is an event that occurs before conception. They could affect one or more body systems, ranging from mild to severe. 

Birth defects can be caused by environmental factors or genetic factors, or a combination of both. In some cases, the cause is even unknown. Nevertheless, the following factors put you at a higher risk of having children with possible congenital abnormalities.

Genes or Family History

Genetic causes of birth defects occur when a gene defect causes cell production problems. Moreover, if you have a family history of congenital abnormalities, you may be more likely to have a child with these birth defects. 


Alcohol, nicotine, and street drugs such as cocaine and heroin can cause congenital abnormalities in your baby. Certain prescription medications, lead, mercury, and some pesticides can also be harmful to a developing baby.

Certain Infections

Infections like German measles (rubella), chickenpox, and cytomegalovirus (CMV) during pregnancy can lead to several different birth defects. Viral infections can cause defects in the brain and spinal cord and the eyes, ears, and heart. In particular, babies exposed to CMV in the uterus may have deafness or mental retardation.

Gestational Diabetes

This type of diabetes that usually occurs during pregnancy is associated with multiple adverse outcomes, including stillbirths and congenital malformations. Poorly controlled diabetes during pregnancy has been linked to congenital heart disease, neural tube defects, and limb deficiencies.

Poor Nutrition

Severe malnutrition in the mother during pregnancy leads to cell growth and organ development problems in the fetus.

Exposure to Toxins and Radiation

Prenatal exposure to radiation, such as X-rays, or chemicals may be associated with an increased risk for congenital disabilities.


4 Most Common Birth Defects

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that about 3 percent of babies are born with congenital abnormalities. Among the most common defects are:


Spina bifida happens when the baby’s spine does not close completely during fetal development. It can cause varying degrees of paralysis, learning difficulties, and bladder control issues.


Down syndrome results from the presence of a third copy of chromosome 21. The extra genetic material leads to intellectual disability, distinct facial features, and health problems such as heart defects and hearing loss.


Congenital heart disease causes an abnormality in the heart’s or large blood vessel’s structure. Left untreated, they can pose a life-threatening threat, but most children with these conditions do well with treatment.


A cleft lip or cleft palate causes facial deformities that affect a child’s ability to eat and speak. Often, babies born with these conditions undergo surgery soon after birth to correct the problem.


Can Congenital Abnormalities Be Prevented?

While you can’t prevent all birth defects, you can reduce risks in other ways. Research has shown that many congenital abnormalities could be prevented if key lifestyle changes were made during pregnancy. Many can be treated or managed, so every baby born with a birth defect has a good chance of surviving, thriving, and living a full life. 

We know more about preventing birth defects today than we have in the past. There’s still a lot of work to do and discoveries yet to be made. Still, with the right information and early detection, you can help improve your potential risk for pregnancy complications, birth defects, and genetic disorders. 


Steps on How to Prevent Birth Defects

Given here are essential steps you can take during pregnancy to decrease the chances of occurrence or recurrence of birth defects.

Maintain a healthy lifestyle

If you are overweight, you must lose the extra pounds before becoming pregnant. Being overweight can cause birth defects, so eating a well-balanced diet is essential to achieve and maintain a healthy weight. Eat a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, lean proteins, whole grains, low-fat dairy products, and good fats. Talk to your doctor about the best diet plan and exercise for you. Besides helping you lose weight, this will also aid you in avoiding preeclampsia and gestational diabetes.


Take folic acid

Folic acid helps prevent neural tube defects such as spina bifida and anencephaly; it also helps reduce certain birth defects of the face and mouth, heart, and urinary tract. Be sure to take 400 micrograms of folic acid daily, especially in your first trimester.

Natural sources of folic acid are

  • dark leafy green vegetables like spinach and kale
  • chicken and beef liver
  • oranges and strawberries
  • broccoli and cauliflower
  • lentils and beans
  • peanuts
  • strawberries

You must also take other vitamins and minerals, particularly iron and Vitamins A, C, and D, apart from folic acid.


Keep your vaccinations up to date

Make sure you have received all the recommended vaccines to prevent infection. These include vaccines for

  • flu
  • measles/mumps/rubella (MMR)
  • varicella (chickenpox) 
  • diphtheria/tetanus and acellular pertussis (DTaP) 

You can also prevent other harmful germs and parasites by practicing good hygiene and consuming foods prepared in a sanitary environment.


Regularly visit a healthcare professional

Consultations with a doctor allow you to receive proper prenatal care. They will conduct several screening tests to check and monitor for any abnormalities in your pregnancy. These tests include:

  • ultrasound
  • noninvasive prenatal screening: checking the DNA for genetic abnormalities through blood samples
  • amniocentesis: a collection of an amniotic fluid sample will help check for genetic disorders and chromosomal abnormalities, such as cystic fibrosis and Tay-Sachs disease


Manage medications

Several medications are not safe to take during pregnancy. You should always consult your doctor before taking any medication, whether it be a prescription or over-the-counter drug, nutritional supplement, or herbal remedy. Ibuprofen in high doses and blood thinners are two medications that should be avoided while pregnant. 


Stay away from other harmful substances

The placenta is a pathway for toxic substances to enter the baby’s bloodstream, so pregnant women should avoid exposure to toxic substances. Among these are fumes emitted by household products, including gasoline and pesticides.


Quit smoking

Stop smoking before you get pregnant. If you’re already pregnant and smoke, quit immediately. Even secondhand smoke can be dangerous for the fetus in your womb. The nicotine in cigarettes may cause fetal heart rate abnormalities, decreased fetal growth, and premature delivery.


Don’t drink alcohol

There’s no known safe level of alcohol when it comes to preventing congenital disabilities — so avoid alcohol entirely if you’re pregnant. It damages a fetus’ developing brain and can lead to various behavioral disorders once they are born, called fetal alcohol syndrome.


Get in Touch with a Doctor

Hopefully, some of the tips here help you decrease your risk of having a baby with a birth defect. If you are pregnant, be sure to talk to your doctor. They can help assess your risk and make sure you get the appropriate care. Don’t hesitate to contact CMCFresno to discuss any of your concerns. Call or schedule an appointment online today!

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