Reducing Risks of Birth Defects

What is a birth defect?

A birth defect is a condition that is present at birth. Some birth defects can be seen right after the baby is born, such as a clubfoot or extra fingers or toes. Special tests may be needed to find others, such as heart defects or hearing loss. Some birth defects are not noticed until later in life.

What causes birth defects?

Some birth defects are caused by genes that can be passed from parents to children. Others result from a problem with chromosomes. A small number of birth defects are caused by exposure during pregnancy to certain medications, infections, and chemicals. For many birth defects, the cause is not known.

What can I do before or during pregnancy to decrease my risk of having a baby with certain birth defects??

Most birth defects cannot be prevented because their cause is not known. For a few birth defects, you may be able to decrease your risk by taking certain steps:

Why should I see a health care professional before becoming pregnant?

Scheduling a health care visit before getting pregnant is a good idea. You can get advice about diet and exercise from your obstetrician–gynecologist (ob-gyn) or other health care professional. You can talk about whether you have any factors that increase the risk of having a child with a birth defect. If you have a medical condition, you can talk about any special care that you may need before or during pregnancy.

What factors increase the risk of having a baby with a birth defect?

You may be at an increased risk of having a baby with a birth defect if you:

If you have any risk factors, your ob-gyn or other health care professional may recommend special tests or other steps that may help reduce your risk. For example, if you have a personal or family history of birth defects, genetic counseling and testing may be recommended.

Why is taking a multivitamin important before and during pregnancy?

Prenatal vitamin supplements contain the recommended amounts of the vitamins and minerals you will need during your pregnancy, including:

Taking 400 micrograms (mcg) of folic acid daily for at least 1 month before pregnancy and during pregnancy helps prevent major birth defects called neural tube defects (NTDs). These are defects of the brain and spine of the fetus. Most prenatal and “women’s formula” multivitamin supplements contain 400–800 mcg of folic acid.

What do I need to know about taking medications during pregnancy?

A few medications have been linked to birth defects. You should tell anyone who prescribes drugs for you that you are pregnant or thinking about getting pregnant. This includes doctors you may see for dental care, mental health care, or other nonpregnancy problems. 

Also, check with your ob-gyn or other health care professional before taking any over-the-counter drug, such as pain relievers, laxatives, cold or allergy remedies, vitamins, herbal products, and skin treatments. A good source for information about the safety or risk of specific drugs during pregnancy is the website of the Organization of Teratology Information Specialists:

How can obesity have an impact on my pregnancy?

Women who are obese (defined as having a body mass index [BMI] of 30 or greater) when they get pregnant have an increased risk of having babies with certain birth defects than women who are a normal weight. Among the most common obesity-related birth defects are NTDs, heart defects, and cleft palate. If you are planning a pregnancy, the best way to prevent problems caused by obesity is to be at a normal weight before you get pregnant.

I have certain medical conditions. Why is it important to talk with my ob-gyn or other health care professional if I am thinking about getting pregnant?

Some medical conditions—such as diabetes, high blood pressure, and seizure disorders—may increase the risk of having a baby with certain birth defects. If you have a medical condition, see your ob-gyn or other health care professional to discuss any changes you need to make in your diet, medication, or other areas to bring the condition under control before you try to get pregnant.

Why is it important for me to not drink alcohol during pregnancy?

Alcohol can interfere with the normal growth of the fetus and cause birth defects. When a woman drinks during pregnancy, her fetus can develop physical, intellectual, behavioral, and learning disabilities that can last a lifetime. It is best not to drink at all during pregnancy. If it is hard for you to stop drinking, talk with your ob-gyn or other health care professional or contact Alcoholics Anonymous on its website:

How can recreational drug use affect my pregnancy?

Using substances—including heroin, cocaine, methamphetamines, and prescription drugs taken for a nonmedical reason—is a widespread problem in the United States. Using illegal drugs early in pregnancy can cause birth defects and miscarriage. 

During the later weeks of pregnancy, illegal drugs can interfere with the growth of the fetus and cause preterm birth and fetal death. Infants born to women who used illegal drugs during pregnancy may need specialized care after birth. If you need help quitting illegal drugs, you can find resources at the website of Narcotics Anonymous:

Can using marijuana affect my pregnancy?

Recreational marijuana used during pregnancy is associated with attention and behavioral problems in children. Marijuana may increase the risk of stillbirth and the risk that babies will be smaller than babies who are not exposed to marijuana before birth. 

Medical marijuana also should be avoided. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists recommends that pregnant women and those planning to become pregnant not use any form of marijuana. You and your ob-gyn or other health care professional can discuss alternative treatments that will be safe for your fetus.

How can opioids affect my pregnancy?

Opioids are a type of medication that relieves pain. Doctors may prescribe opioids for people who have had surgery, dental work, or an injury. Prescribed opioids include oxycodone, hydromorphone, hydrocodone, and codeine. When taken under a doctor’s care, opioids are safe for both you and your fetus. It is important to take the medication only as prescribed.

Most people who use a prescription opioid have no trouble stopping their use, but some people develop an addiction. Misusing opioids during pregnancy can increase the risk of serious complications, including preterm birth, stillbirth, and problems with the placenta and fetal growth. If you need help with an opioid addiction, you can find resources at the website of the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA): SAMHSA also has a 24 hour treatment referral line: 800-662-HELP (4357).

What infections should I be concerned about and how can I reduce my risk of getting them during pregnancy?

Some infections can increase the risk of birth defects and other problems during pregnancy for you and your fetus:

What precautions can I take to limit my exposure to agents that can cause birth defects?

A few precautions that are recommended for all pregnant women include the following:

If you have any questions or concerns about birth defects, please contact us to schedule an appointment.

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