1 out of every 33 babies in the United States is born with a birth defect. While some birth defects cannot be prevented there are ways to reduce the risk of many others. By definition, birth defects occur before the pediatrician is involved but as they affect our patients, we want to do our part to encourage prevention.
I strongly encourage any women considering becoming pregnant to see her doctor for preconception counseling. This gives your doctor the opportunity to review your vaccination history, current medications, any risk factors, and overall health.
There are certain vaccine preventable infections that can lead to birth defects so making sure you are up-to-date on immunizations is important. Some of these vaccines cannot be given once you are pregnant. Good hand hygiene with frequent washing with soap and water can also decrease other infections.
While many medications are safe to take while pregnant, many are not. There may be other options that would be safer for your fetus and if possible, it is best to make these changes and make dose adjustments prior to becoming pregnant.
Tobacco, alcohol and illicit drugs all increase the risk of birth defects. No amount of alcohol is considered safe during pregnancy. There is no safe time to drink during a pregnancy. Alcohol consumption increases the risk of miscarriage, stillbirth and other lifelong disorders including fetal alcohol syndrome. Smoking and being exposed to second hand smoke increases the risk of miscarriage, premature labor, delivering a small baby, sudden infant death syndrome, and other birth defects. Avoid illicit drugs as these can also increase birth defects.
A mother taking a daily folic acid supplement can decrease the risk of birth defects in a baby’s brain and spine. Any women of child bearing age should take 400 micrograms per day (unless otherwise directly by their doctor).
It is important for any women but especially one considering becoming pregnant to work to obtain and maintain a healthy weight through a healthy diet and active lifestyle. Being overweight and underweight increase a women’s risk of complications during pregnancy and delivery.
While ideally this information is reviewed and changes are made prior to becoming pregnant, it is never too late to decrease risks. It is best for women to contact their doctor as soon as they know they are pregnant so the first appointment can be scheduled. Regular prenatal care throughout a pregnancy can also decrease the risk of birth defects.