Each year in the United States, more than 120,000 babies are born with a birth defect. They are the leading cause of infant deaths. There are thousands of different birth defects, affecting the structure or function of every part of the human body. The March of Dimes provides grants to researchers, with the goal of understanding the causes of birth defects and developing new ways to prevent and treat them. Currently, about 70 percent of the causes of birth defects are unknown.
Some March of Dimes grantees are studying basic biological processes of development. This important research should improve our understanding of how genes and other factors direct the transformation from a single cell into a complete being. A more advanced look at the process of development will help reveal what can go wrong along the way. Others are conducting clinical studies aimed at finding ways to prevent or treat specific birth defects.
Genetics has long been a main theme of March of Dimes research. Grantees have discovered genes that cause or contribute to a number of common birth defects, including fragile X syndrome, cleft lip and palate, and heart defects. These discoveries pave the way for treatments and preventions for these birth defects.
Most birth defects cannot be prevented because their causes are not known. However, women can take a number of steps before and during pregnancy to reduce their risk [link to Birth Defects fact sheet]. These steps include taking a multivitamin containing 400 micrograms of folic acid daily starting before pregnancy and in early pregnancy. This helps to prevent serious birth defects of the brain and spinal cord, including spina bifida, and may also help prevent heart defects.
Congenital heart defects are among the most common birth defects, affecting nearly 1 out of 100 babies in the United States. Some heart defects are mild, while others can be life-threatening. Other common birth defects include cleft lip/palate, Down syndrome and spina bifida (open spine), affecting about 1 in 700, 1 in 800 and 1 in 2,500 babies respectively.
Environmental substances that can contribute to birth defects include alcohol, certain drugs/medications and infections. Women who drink heavily during pregnancy are at risk of having a baby with a pattern of mental and physical birth defects called fetal alcohol syndrome. Because even moderate or light drinking may harm a baby, women who are pregnant or planning pregnancy should not drink any alcohol. They also should avoid illegal drugs such as cocaine and Ecstasy, and ask their health care provider about the safety of any prescription and over-the-counter medications they take. Women also can take steps to help prevent certain infections such as toxoplasmosis and cytomegalovirus that can cause birth defects.