4 Steps to Help Prevent Birth Defects

National Birth Defects Prevention Month and Folic Acid Awareness Week focus on infant health

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD Beth Bolt, RPh

Pregnant women can decrease the chances of birth defects by following four healthy strategies.

January is National Birth Defects Prevention Month. And in that same month, from Jan. 4 to Jan. 10, was Folic Acid Awareness Week. Folic acid is a B vitamin thought to reduce the risk of certain birth defects.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is taking this opportunity to highlight what it calls PACT for Prevention. This is an important topic, since the CDC reports that 1 baby in 33 has some sort of birth defect, and some birth defects can be prevented.

PACT includes several important steps women should follow to help their babies be as healthy as possible. Women should Plan ahead, Avoid harmful substances, Choose a healthy lifestyle and Talk to their doctors, the CDC says.

"These steps can never assure that a pregnancy will be healthy, however, one can significantly improve the likelihood of taking home a healthy baby," said Andre F. Hall, MD, of Birth and Women's Care in Fayetteville, NC, in an interview with dailyRx News.

Plan Ahead

Ideally, planning for pregnancy starts before you become pregnant, the CDC says. Even if you are generally healthy, some advance preparation is a good idea.

"Pregnancies are best when planned and discussions can be had with a patient's healthcare provider," Dr. Hall said.

For instance, pregnant women and their babies face a higher risk of problems if mom gets the flu while pregnant. Getting a flu shot either before or during pregnancy may protect both of you, but talk to your doctor first.

"At this time opportunities for improvements in health and nutrition can be discussed," Dr. Hall said. "In addition, immunizations can be reviewed and daily stressors can be addressed. When pregnancies occur that are not planned then it is important that bad habits be corrected immediately."

If you have any kind of chronic medical condition — especially if you take medications — the condition or the medications might affect the baby. Some medications can actually cause birth defects, so you’ll want to discuss this issue with your doctor, too.

Avoid Harmful Substances

Tobacco, alcohol and illegal drugs can harm both you and your baby.

Babies of mothers who don't smoke are less likely to be born early or to develop asthma than babies of moms who do smoke. When you nix the nicotine, your baby will be less likely to have weak lungs or other health problems.

Your baby's brain is very susceptible to the effects of alcohol and illegal drugs. This is one of those cases where even a little is not a good idea, the CDC says. Avoid both throughout your pregnancy to help prevent problems.

Other substances in your environment can make it more difficult to get pregnant or cause problems for you and your baby. For instance, when you’re pregnant, someone else should change your kitty’s litter box to keep you from becoming infected with toxoplasmosis. This parasitic disease is found in cats’ feces and can be spread to you or your baby.

Choose a Healthy Lifestyle

Eating a healthy diet is one of the best ways to make your pregnancy healthier. Fresh fruits and vegetables, lean meats, whole grains, and healthy fats like olive oil provide you with the nutrients you and your baby need.

One of the most important nutrients during pregnancy is a B vitamin called folic acid. Pregnant women who take in enough folic acid are less likely to have babies with problems in the spine or brain. You need a minimum of 400 micrograms of folic acid each day, and the CDC recommends you start to take it at least one month before you try to get pregnant.

If you are overweight, it’s best to try to attain a healthy weight before becoming pregnant. Women who are overweight have a higher risk of complications like high blood pressure.

Other parts of a healthy lifestyle include sufficient exercise and adequate sleep.

Talk to Your Doctor

Keeping your doctor informed helps keep you and your baby safe and healthy.

Your doctor needs to know about your family history, as some diseases are genetic. If you’ve ever been pregnant before — especially if you’ve had a miscarriage, stillbirth or complications of pregnancy like high blood pressure — be sure your doctor has all the details.

The CDC says you should make a list of any medicines, vitamins, supplements, or herbs you use and discuss whether you should continue taking them.

Your doctor is your partner during pregnancy, so keep your appointments and communicate, communicate, communicate.

A Message of Hope

Some things in life seem to happen for no real reason.

You can’t control your genes, for instance, although genetic counseling could help you identify possible risks. Genetic counseling includes tests for a variety of genetic diseases. A genetic counselor can also discuss the odds that your baby may have a particular condition and tell you what your options are.

Many of the other factors that affect your pregnancy and your baby, however, are under your control — like not smoking, eating a healthy diet and exercising. Improving your own health boosts both your chances and your baby's chances of a healthy life.

Review Date: 
January 19, 2015