A Healthy Baby New Year

January is National Birth Defects Prevention Month

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD

For most women, finding out they are pregnant is a joyous occasion, full of hope and happiness. But along with that happiness can also be stress and worry, hoping that the baby growing inside of them will be delivered healthy and without complications. There are many questions to answer and much information to gather...what vitamins to take? What should she eat? Should she continue to take her prescribed medication?

To help answer these questions for all expectant mothers and women thinking about having a baby, the National Birth Defects Prevention Network (NBDPN) wants everyone to know that January is National Birth Defects Prevention month, with the 2011 theme of “Medication Use Before, During, and After Pregnancy”.

Most expectant parents realize that sometimes things just don't go according to nature's plan, and there are birth defects that just 'happen.' In fact, the cause of up to two thirds of all birth defects are unknown. But it's also important to realize that many common birth defects are entirely preventable. What a pregnant mother decides to put in her body can have a tremendous impact on the baby's prenatal health. The NBDPN wants all expectant mothers to know a few things that they can do to give their unborn baby the best chance at being born healthy.

Take a multivitamin with folic acid
Why is folic acid important? Also known as vitamin B9, folic acid is essential for the production of new cells, as well as making DNA and red blood cells. As one might surmise, pregnancy is a state of constant production of new cells for the baby, so a good supply of folate is essential. It has been well documented that a lack of folate during pregnancy increases the risk of the baby having a neural tube defect, with spina bifida and anencephaly (born with no brain) being the most common examples. It has also been shown to reduce the incidence of cardiac defects, cleft lip, and urinary tract defects.

Every woman who is planning to become pregnant should start taking a multivitamin that has 400mcg of folic acid daily, and continue taking it through the pregnancy. If a pregnancy is unplanned, she should begin folic acid supplementation as soon as she finds out a baby is on the way.

Have regular prenatal care with a doctor or midwife
Prenatal visits with a qualified healthcare professional have a huge impact on both the health of the mother and the baby. Ideally, a woman would see a doctor once a month during the first six months of pregnancy, every other week for months seven and eight, and then weekly up until the birth of the child. These visits are important to make sure that the baby's nutritional needs are being met and that the baby's growth inside the uterus is going safely.

The most common prenatnal test is an ultrasound at week twenty, which can tell the sex of the baby, any potential birth defects, and monitor growth. Just as importantly, prenatal visits check on the health of the mother, to see if she has developed gestational diabetes, and to monitor her blood pressure and liver function. If the mother's health is at risk, doctors can prescribe medication for the treatment of diabetes and high blood pressure.

Update medications and vaccinations
Current data indicates that two out of every three pregnant women are taking a prescription medication of some kind. This, more than anything, is one of the best reasons to initiate and stick with regular prenatal care. Many women have chronic conditions such as diabetes, asthma, epilepsy, or mental disorders that require medication,and discontinuing treatment would pose a real health risk to the mother as well as the baby. It is a complicated subject, because some medications used to treat these conditions are known teratogens (safe for adults to take, but have been demonstrated to cause birth defects).

For example, a woman might have controlled her epilepsy by taking Dilantin, but Dilantin is known to cause cardiac birth defects. If this woman ceased taking the Dilantin, her epilepsy would not be controlled, which is another risk to her health and the baby's health. In this situation, the mother is going to have to work with her doctor to find a suitable alternative treatment for her seizures, or if no alternative is available, she'll be able to have a frank discussion with the doctor about the risks and benefits of taking Dilantin while pregnant.

The important thing to know is that as soon as a woman finds out she's pregnant, she should immediately speak to her doctor about the medications she can and cannot take while pregnant, and also consult with a doctor before she stops taking anything she's been prescribed. Continuous discussion about medication throughout the prenatal period should yield the safest plan of action for mother and baby.

Ditch the bad habits
It's hard to break bad habits, but women who are pregnant need to try to do so not just for themselves, but for the health of the baby. It has been well established that alcohol and tobacco use during pregnancy can cause irreparable damage to the growing fetus.

Fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS) is the leading cause of intellectual disability in the west, with it estimated to occur between every 0.2-1.5 live births. Children born with FAS have stunted growth, malformed facial features, and brain damage that results in cognitive and functional problems.

Cigarette smoking during pregnancy denies oxygen to the growing fetus, and can result in low birth weight and premature birth, as well as put the mother and baby both at risk for placental abruption, a life-threatening bleeding condition for both the baby and the mother.

As difficult as it may be to do, women need to remember that anything they put in their body during pregnancy goes to the baby just as much as it goes to them. If you wouldn't give your two week old child a shot of whiskey and a cigarette at the end of the day, don't give it to them when they're still in the womb either.

Full promotional materials about National Birth Defects Prevention Month can be found at the NBDPN at their website listed below. 

Review Date: 
January 4, 2011