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8 Ways to Minimize the Chances of Birth Defects

Every pregnant mother hopes her baby is born in perfect health. Although there are some factors we can’t control, there are many we can.

In this post, we will outline 8 things you can do to minimize the chances of your baby having a birth defect. For best results, start these habits before you try to conceive. If you’re already pregnant, implementing these tips ASAP will still lessen your risk.

Take Folic Acid

Each year in the U.S., 3,000 pregnancies are affected by neural tube defects such as spina bifida or anencephaly. Many of these defects could have been prevented if the mother took 400 mcg of folic acid per day before and during pregnancy. In fact, folic acid can reduce the chances of birth defects by 70%.

The reason women are told to take folic acid before they become pregnant is that it plays an important role during the first month. However, many women don’t know they’re pregnant that early because half of pregnancies are unplanned.

There are a couple ways you can get your daily amount of folic acid:

  • Take a daily supplement of 400 mcg
  • Try a fortified cereal that contains 400 mcg in one serving
  • Eat foods high in folic acid such as beans, green vegetables, citrus fruits, orange juice and enriched grain products

Avoid Alcohol

When a mother drinks alcohol, it passes through the umbilical cord to the baby. Therefore, when you drink alcohol, so does your baby. Alcohol can cause many issues such as stillbirth and miscarriage. It can also cause physical and intellectual disabilities, known as fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASDs). FASDs can be broken up into a few categories:

Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS)- Children with FAS may have growth problems, abnormal facial features or central nervous system problems. They may have trouble with communication, vision, hearing, learning, memory or attention span.

Alcohol-Related Birth Defects (ARBD)- This could include issues with the kidneys, bones or heart.

Alcohol-Related Neurodevelopmental Disorder (ARND)- Children with ARND can have intellectual disabilities. They may have trouble with attention span, judgement, impulse control and often exhibit behavioral problems.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), there’s no known safe amount of alcohol and there’s no safe time to drink during pregnancy. Still, according to a study by the CDC, about one in eight pregnant woman report having at least one alcoholic drink in the past month.

All alcohol, including spirits, wines and beers, are equally as harmful. Since there’s no treatment for FASDs and it’s 100% preventable, it’s crucial to abstain from alcohol completely.

Avoid Cigarette Smoke

Cigarettes contain over 4,000 chemicals, including the two most harmful: nicotine and carbon monoxide. These chemicals work together to reduce your baby’s oxygen. When there’s not enough oxygen, your baby cannot develop normally.

Inhaling smoke while expecting doubles the chance that a baby will be born too early or too little. A premature baby may need to be attached to a respirator after birth since their lungs may not be ready to function. These breathing problems can continue into childhood, making them more likely to have asthma. Children born from a pregnant smoking woman are also more likely to have behavioral problems and learning disorders. According to a 2011 CDC study, babies birthed from mothers who smoked during the first trimester were 20-70% more likely to have heart defects.

Smoking can also cause stillbirth and birth defects such as cleft lip or cleft palate.

With all these risks, the message is clear: Give up smoking during pregnancy. Since quitting can be difficult, try to stop before trying to conceive, if possible. If you are already pregnant, it’s never too late to stop smoking. A 2009 study found that mothers who stopped smoking during the first trimester raised their chances of having a healthy baby to match those of a nonsmoker.

You should also stay away from others who are smoking—even secondhand smoke can affect your baby.

Maintain a Healthy Weight

When you’re healthy, your baby is more likely to also be healthy. A 2017 study that observed more than a million overweight pregnant women found that they were more at risk for birth defects. Heart defects were the most common, followed by issues with genital organs, limbs and urinary system. She is also more likely to have complications during pregnancy.

If you haven’t conceived yet, achieving a healthy weight before trying is ideal. If you are already pregnant, try to make changes to your eating and exercise habits. Aim to eat a healthy, balanced diet. When you do give into pregnancy cravings, eat small portions instead of the entire serving. Here are more tips to control cravings.

If you’re not big on working out, incorporating just a little exercise can help—start small with a brisk walk or yoga video. For more information, read our guide on exercising while expecting.

If you are diagnosed with gestational diabetes, diet and exercise are also an important part of your treatment plan. Untreated gestational diabetes can affect your baby. To read more about this condition, click here.

Take Action to Prevent Infections

While some viruses, such as the common cold, aren’t typically dangerous during pregnancy, other infections can be harmful to your baby. Here are a few tips to prevent infections:

  • Do not travel to areas with Zika virus before or during pregnancy. For more information, read our post Zika Virus & Pregnancy: Your Guide to Staying Safe.
  • Don’t consume unpasteurized milk. Raw milk can contain harmful bacteria and can also be used in soft cheeses like feta and brie. According to the CDC, soft cheeses are 50 to 160 times more likely to cause Listeria if they are made with unpasteurized milk. Check the label to ensure they are made with pasteurized milk.
  • Wash your hands frequently. This includes after going to the washroom or touching anything with bacteria such as pets, soil, raw meat, children or diapers.
  • Avoid people with infections. You should also avoid wild or pet rodents and get someone else to change the cat litter box.

Choose Medications Carefully

While some medications are okay during pregnancy, many can either cause birth defects or haven’t been studied enough to label them as pregnancy-safe. This includes both prescription and over-the-counter (OTC) medication.

Medications that cause birth defects include (but not limited to) Paxil, lithium, Dilantin, Accutane and Thalomid. For a full list of OTC medications and their safety during pregnancy, click here. The effect of some medications on pregnant women are unknown and can choose to be avoided. Some of these include Diflucan, Ventolin, Zoloft and Prozac.

Some natural supplements and medications may also affect your baby.

If you are currently on medication and are pregnant or trying to conceive, ask your doctor if the medication is safe and do your own research. If you’re in a pinch, MotherToBaby is staffed with Teratology Information Specialists who can answer your questions about pregnancy and medication. You can use their free live chat, fill out their e-mail form, or call them at 855-999-3525.

Avoid Pesticides/Chemicals

Some pesticides and chemicals may be harmful during pregnancy.

For example, BPA, commonly used in the lining of canned foods, may harm the development in fetuses and babies.

Atrazine, the second most common herbicide in the U.S., may also be harmful. A 2011 study showed that women with levels of atrazine were more likely to have smaller babies. Additional studies have linked the herbicide to increases in birth defects.

So, what can you do?

  • Make sure to thoroughly wash all fruits and vegetables before consuming
  • Avoid canned foods if possible
  • Try to use natural cleaning products when possible
  • If you need to use a chemical or pesticide, get someone else to apply it
  • For more information and tips about chemicals during pregnancy, click here

Get Check-Ups

If you’ve yet to conceive, you and your partner should see a doctor to ensure you’re both healthy.

During your pregnancy journey, you shouldn’t miss appointments with your doctor or midwife. If you suspect there’s a problem or have a question, don’t be afraid to reach out to a professional. In many cases, catching a problem early can make a difference.

Women over age 35 have a higher risk of having a baby with birth defects such as Down syndrome. If you’re in this category, get your doctor to do extra testing to ensure you’re healthy. This can include blood tests, amniocentesis, or chorionic villus sampling.

Have you taken actions to prevent birth defects? If so, comment below. If you have friends who are pregnant or trying to conceive, help them out by sharing this post with them.

P.S. If you’re constantly worried about your baby’s health, check out our fetal dopplers. These at-home devices allow you to hear your baby’s heartbeat through headphones. It’s not only an amazing experience, but it can help ensure you that your baby is okay.



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