Avoiding Birth Defects: What Every Expectant Mother Should Know

When it comes to pregnancy and motherhood, there is one thing that tends to stand out above everything else: the health of the baby and the mother-to-be. Indeed, it oftentimes becomes a key focus of expecting parents, but also the healthcare providers who are carefully following a mother’s pregnancy. 

Understandably, the concern of birth defects is something that most families fear. Nonetheless, it’s essential to take the time to fully educate oneself about them. Not only can this help inform parents, but it can also provide the resources to empower healthy decisions during pregnancy. 

Surprisingly, birth defects are much more common than believed. Because of this, it’s important to remain aware of the possible complications and problems that can arise during pregnancy. Knowledge about these dangers, and remaining proactive to help minimize them is vital to help ensure a healthy pregnancy and delivery. 

Understanding Birth Defects

Birth defects affect approximately 1 in 33 babies born each year. These defects can include serious changes to the infant’s body and include essential organs such as the heart or brain. Or, they can be simply cosmetic in nature. The implications of birth defects largely depend on which part of the body is affected and the extent of the defect itself.

What Can Increase These Risks?

Generally, the majority of birth defects occur within the first three months of pregnancy. This doesn’t mean that once the mother is past the first trimester that the risk disappears. Rather, it just means that the danger is sharply reduced after this point. 

Some birth defects can be traced back to a precise catalyst, such as fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS) or illness during pregnancy. The majority of defects, though, can arise without precedent and the exact causes may remain fairly unknown. Typically, a variety of factors come into play, such as genetics or the environment. 

While birth defects are complex, healthcare professionals do know that the following things can increase this risk:

  • Pre-existing medical conditions. This can include obesity, diabetes, and autoimmune disorders.
  • Substance use. This includes the use of tobacco, alcohol, and other illicit drugs.
  • Certain medications. For example, isotretinoin (a powerful acne treatment) can elevate risk.
  • Disease or infections. A fever of more than 101°F, for instance, can make a birth defect more likely.
  • Poor diet. Even if the mother follows a healthy diet, prenatal vitamins can still make a huge difference.
  • Genetics. If a family history of birth defects exists, then the chances of it being heritable are also elevated.
  • The mother’s age. Being an older parent does increase the likelihood of chromosomal anomalies occurring.

It’s important to remember that just because one or more of these risk factors do exist, it doesn’t automatically mean that the child will have a birth defect. On the other hand, even seemingly healthy mothers (that is, those without any comorbidities or other health issues) can deliver a child who has a birth defect. Speaking to a genetic counselor can help provide vital information about the risk of certain birth defects.

How Birth Defects Are Detected

In the past, knowing if an unborn child had a birth defect would remain a mystery until it was actually born. Many birth defects can be detected within the first year of life, and they can even be highly visible (such as in the case of a cleft lip or Down syndrome). Other defects can be harder to diagnose, such as congenital hearing loss or heart murmurs. Testing may be necessary to identify these defects.

Undergoing prenatal diagnostic testing can help identify the likelihood of a defect occurring and can give parents peace of mind throughout their pregnancy. Many of these tests can be quite safe, imparting minimal or zero danger to the mother or her unborn child. In electing to have this testing done, parents can be better aware of the chances of a defect occurring and take prompt action if needed.

Nobody ever wants to worry about something bad happening to their child. Nevertheless, ignoring the risks of potential birth defects can have lasting effects. By remaining informed about the risk of genetic defects, and taking proactive measures to identify and prevent them, you can ensure that you and your baby live the happiest and healthiest lives possible. 

Photo by Jessica Rockowitz and Bethany Beck on Unsplash