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What You Need to Know About Preventing Birth Defects

January 19, 2018

Every January, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention raises awareness about birth defects with its National Birth Defects Prevention Month. Throughout the month, the CDC gets the word out to women who either are pregnant or could soon become pregnant, that there are steps they can take to reduce the likelihood that they will have a baby suffering from birth defects.

Clearly, birth defects cannot be prevented in their entirety. However, it is possible to increase the chances of having a healthy baby by following a few healthy-lifestyle options. For example, folic acid is known to prevent many serious birth defects and is found in most vitamin supplements, especially those that are labeled as “pre-natal” vitamins. There are also many foods that are rich in folic acid, including asparagus, broccoli, citrus fruits and avocados, as well as dark, leafy greens like spinach and romaine lettuce.

Specifically, some of the birth defects that folic acid can help prevent are neural tube defects like spina bifida and anencephaly. In fact, it is estimated that up to 70 percent of the 3,000 babies born in the U.S. with neural tube defects could be prevented if all women of child-bearing age got at least 400 micrograms of folic acid every day, either from multivitamins or food, both before and during pregnancy.

Unfortunately, a recent poll by the March of Dimes found that only about a third of all women regularly take a multivitamin with folic acid before they learn they are pregnant. And because half of all pregnancies are unexpected, this means that, for the other two-thirds of women, their bodies are not optimally prepared to carry a baby to term.

The March of Dimes survey also found that, while nearly two-thirds of women understand the that folic acid is an important nutrient in preventing birth defects, only 40 percent know that iron, calcium and vitamin D are also important vitamins that protect developing babies against defects. Additionally, the survey showed that 13 percent of women don’t realize that avoiding tobacco reduces the risk of birth defects, while 12 percent were unaware that eliminating the consumption of alcohol and illegal drugs during pregnancy would deliver similar benefits.

This clearly points to a need for education directed toward women in their child-bearing years about steps they can take to minimize the risk of birth defects.

  • Take folic acid. Again, it’s best to start at least a month prior to becoming pregnant and then throughout your pregnancy.
  • See your doctor regularly. Starting as soon as you think you might be pregnant, schedule an appointment with a healthcare professional.
  • Stop drinking alcohol. To be clear, there is no known safe amount of alcohol you can consume while pregnant without putting your baby at risk for birth defects, and that includes wine and beer.
  • If you use tobacco, quit. Tobacco use, including smokeless tobacco, has been linked to cleft lip, cleft palate, low birth weight, pre-term birth and infant death.
  • Avoid caffeine. Because caffeine is a stimulant, it increases your heart rate and blood pressure, neither of which is a good idea during pregnancy.

Finally, ask your physician about genetic screening and what it involves. This is especially relevant if you have a family history of birth defects or if you are 35 years of age or older.

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