Women spend a lot of time worrying about what to eat, drink, and do (or not do) while pregnant. Even if you aren’t worried, everyone else is. You’ll hear all sorts of (mostly unwanted) advice and opinions as soon as you’re showing such as, “Oh you shouldn’t eat that.”

January is Birth Defects Prevention Month. The theme for 2019 is “Best for You. Best for Baby.” Ignore the unwanted opinions — let’s talk about what really causes birth defects and what you can do to have a healthy baby.

What Causes Birth Defects

A birth defect is a structural change present at birth that may affect how the body looks or works or both. Birth defects can affect almost any part of the body, from the brain to the feet. According to the Centers for Disease Control, a baby is born with a birth defect every 4 ½ minutes — meaning 120,000 babies are affected by birth defects each year. Most importantly, birth defects are the leading cause of infant deaths.

Most defects occur within the first three months of pregnancy, but some form in later stages. Some defects are genetic, such as club feet, while others can be prevented by avoiding harmful substances. Moms older than age 34 are more likely to have a child with a birth defect.

The most common birth defects are:

  • heart defects
  • spina bifida
  • cleft lip or palate
  • sickle cell disease
  • clubfoot
  • Down syndrome
  • cystic fibrosis

What You Can Do

  • Take folic acid, which prevents severe birth defects to the baby’s brain and spine. Check your prenatal vitamin label and make sure it indicates that the vitamin contains 100% of the daily value (DV) of folic acid, which is 400 mcg.
  • Talk to your doctor about your medications. If you take something for a chronic condition you may need to change the prescription or dosage. Your doctor needs to know every vitamin, herb, powdered drink, over-the-counter medications, and prescriptions that you take.
  • Visit your OB/GYN or doctor as often as they recommend. Your doctors want to make sure both you and the baby are doing well and staying healthy. During pregnancy, it can feel like you’re at the doctor’s office all the time, especially toward the end, but these visits are a critical part of your care.
  • Get your vaccines, especially the flu shot and the TDAP. Your doctor will recommend the TDAP at a specific time during pregnancy. Get the flu shot in the autumn as needed, or if you didn’t get it then, get it after you find out you’re pregnant.
  • Try to reach a healthy weight before pregnancy and maintain it. The old “eating for two” thing is not true and often leads to unhealthy weight gain, which can cause many health risks for your baby and for you.
  • Avoid tobacco, alcohol, marijuana, and prescription opioids as well as any illegal drugs. All of these can harm your baby’s development. If you struggle with substance abuse, be honest with your doctor who can help you get counseling.

Get more information about each of these tips. As soon as you become pregnant, make an appointment with your doctor. If you are trying to become pregnant, feel free to ask us any questions.