Every 4 ½ minutes, a baby is born with a major birth defect in the United States. They are a leading cause of death among U.S. infants, accounting for about 20% of mortality in the first year of life. In addition, babies born with birth defects have a greater chance of illness and long term disability than babies without birth defects. January is National Birth Defects Prevention Month, a time to focus on raising awareness about the frequency with which birth defects occur in the United States and of the steps that can be taken to prevent them. While not all birth defects can be prevented, there are things a women can do get ready for a healthy pregnancy.
- Be fit. Eat a healthy diet and work towards a healthy weight before pregnancy.
- Be healthy. Avoid alcohol, tobacco, and illicit drugs. Be sure to consume at least 400 micrograms of folic acid every day before and during early pregnancy. Work to get health conditions, like diabetes, in control before becoming pregnant.
- Be wise. Visit a health care professional regularly. Consult with your healthcare provider about any medications, including prescription and over-the counter medications and dietary or herbal supplements, before taking them.
Managing health conditions and adopting healthy behaviors before becoming pregnancy can increase your chances of having a healthy baby. Follow these guidelines before and during pregnancy.
Not all birth defects can be prevented. But, a woman can increase her own chances of having a healthy baby, by managing health conditions and adopting healthy behaviors before becoming pregnant. This is important because many birth defects happen very early during pregnancy, sometimes before a woman even knows she is pregnant.
Here are some steps a woman can take to get ready for a healthy pregnancy:
- Take 400 micrograms (mcg) of folic acid every day. Folic acid is a B vitamin. If a woman has enough folic acid in her body at least 1 month before and during pregnancy, it can help prevent major birth defects of the baby’s brain and spine (anencephaly and spina bifida).
- Don’t drink alcohol at any time during pregnancy. When a woman drinks alcohol, so does her unborn baby. Alcohol in the woman’s blood passes through the placenta to her baby through the umbilical cord. There is no known safe amount of alcohol to drink while pregnant. There also is no safe time during pregnancy to drink and no safe kind of alcohol. Drinking alcohol during pregnancy can cause a baby to be born with a fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD).
- Don’t smoke. The dangers of smoking during pregnancy include premature birth, certain birth defects (cleft lip or cleft palate), and infant death. Even being around cigarette smoke puts a woman and her unborn baby at risk for problems. Quitting smoking before getting pregnant is best. But for a woman who is already pregnant, quitting as early as possible can still help protect against some health problems for the baby, such as low birth weight.
- Don’t use “street” drugs. A woman who uses illegal—or “street”—drugs during pregnancy can have a baby who is born premature; is low birth weight; or has other health problems, such as birth defects. A woman who uses cocaine while pregnant is more likely to have a baby with birth defects of the arms, legs, urinary system, and heart. Other drugs, such as marijuana and ecstasy, also can cause birth defects among babies. It also is important that a woman not use “street” drugs after she gives birth, because such drugs can be passed through breast milk to her baby and can affect the baby’s growth and development. If you use “street” drugs, talk with your doctor about quitting before you get pregnant.
- Talk to a health care provider about taking any medications. Taking certain medications during pregnancy can cause serious birth defects, but the safety of many medications taken by pregnant women has been difficult to determine. If you are pregnant or planning a pregnancy, you should not stop taking medications you need or begin taking new medications without first talking with your doctor. This includes prescription and over-the-counter medications and dietary or herbal products.
- Prevent infections. Some infections that a woman can get during pregnancy can be harmful to the unborn baby. Learn how to help prevent infections.
- Talk to your doctor about vaccinations (shots). Many vaccinations are safe and recommended during pregnancy, but some are not. Having the right vaccinations at the right time can help keep a woman and her baby healthy.
- Keep diabetes under control. Poor control of diabetes during pregnancy increases the chances for birth defects and other problems for the baby. It can also cause serious complications for the woman. Proper healthcare before and during pregnancy can help prevent birth defects and other poor outcomes.
- Reach and maintain a healthy weight. A woman who is obese (a body mass index of 30 or higher) before pregnancy is at a higher risk for complications during pregnancy. Obesity in the woman also increases the risk of several serious birth defects for the baby. If you are overweight or obese, talk with your doctor about ways to reach a healthy weight before you get pregnant.
- See a health care professional regularly. A woman should be sure to see her doctor when planning a pregnancy and start prenatal care as soon as she thinks that she is pregnant. It is important to see the doctor regularly throughout pregnancy, so a woman should keep all her prenatal care appointments.
Pregnancy is an exciting time, but it also can be stressful. Knowing that you are doing all that you can to get ready for pregnancy, staying healthy during pregnancy, and giving your baby a healthy start in life will help you to have peace of mind.