What are Birth Defects?
Birth defects are abnormal conditions that happen before or at the time of birth. Some are mild–like an extra finger or toe. Some are very serious–like a heart defect. They can cause physical, mental, or medical problems. Some, like Down syndrome or sickle cell anemia, are caused by genetic factors. Others are caused by certain drugs, medicines or chemicals. But the causes of most birth defects are still a mystery. Researchers are working hard to learn the causes of birth defects so that we can find ways to prevent them.
You may be surprised to learn that about 50 percent of all pregnancies in the United States are not planned. It may also be news that many birth defects and other newborn health problems occur in the first few weeks after conception—when you may not even know you’re pregnant.
A baby’s health is strongly linked to the mother’s health before pregnancy. That’s another important reason for you to stay healthy.
Did You Know?
- Birth defects are the leading cause of death in children less than one year of age–causing one in every five deaths.
- 18 babies die each day in the U.S. as a result of a birth defect. Defects of the heart and limbs are the most common kinds of birth defects.
- Millions of dollars are spent every year for the care and treatment of children with birth defects. Birth defects are a serious problem.
How Serious are Birth Defects?
One in 33 babies is born with a birth defect. Many people believe that birth defects only happen to other people. Birth defects can and do happen in any family. About 120,000 babies in the U.S. each year have birth defects.
What is the Good News?
The good news is that new ways of preventing and treating birth defects are being found. Genes that may cause birth defects are being found every day, providing hope for new treatments and cures. Genetic counseling provides parents with information about their risks based on family history, age, ethnic or racial background, or other factors. Better health care for mothers with problems like diabetes or seizures can improve their chances of having healthy babies. Immunization prevents infections like German measles (rubella) that can harm unborn babies.
What Steps Can Women Take to Prevent Birth Defects?
Not all birth defects can be prevented. But a woman can increase her own chance of having a healthy baby. Many birth defects happen very early in pregnancy, sometimes before a woman even knows she is pregnant. Remember that about half of all pregnancies are unplanned. Here are some steps a woman can take to get ready for a healthy pregnancy:
- Take a vitamin with 400 micrograms (mcg) folic acid every day.
- Avoid alcohol, tobacco, and street drugs.
- Keep hands clean by washing them often with soap and water to prevent infections.
- See a health care professional regularly.
- Talk with the health care professional about any medical problems and medicine use (both prescription and over-the-counter).
- Ask about avoiding any substances at work or at home that might be harmful to a developing baby.
- Eat a healthy, balanced diet.
- Avoid unpasteurized (raw) milk and foods made from it.
- Avoid eating raw or undercooked meat.
- Keep up these healthy habits.
- Get early prenatal care and go to every appointment
Want to Know More?
Ask your health care professional or local health department how to plan for a healthy baby.
10 things you should know about birth defects: http://www.nbdpn.org/docs/10Things_Eng.pdf
Tips on Preventing Infections During Pregnancy : http://www.nbdpn.org/docs/InfectionPrevTIPS.pdf