March of Dimes, the leading nonprofit fighting for the health of all moms and babies, and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC) are partnering to raise awareness of the actions women can take to have a healthy pregnancy and baby, just in time for National Birth Defects Prevention Month in January 2021. As we face the COVID-19 pandemic, pregnant women must take special care of themselves as they prepare for their baby. The New Year is the perfect time to learn about the actions you can take to be healthy before and during pregnancy – because what’s best for you is best for baby.
Understanding birth defects and their causes is an important step in preparing for a healthy pregnancy. Each year, birth defects affect about 1 in every 33 babies born in the U.S., according to CDC. Mainly developing in the first three months of pregnancy as a baby’s organs form, birth defects present as structural changes at birth that can affect one or more parts of the body (e.g. heart, brain, foot). An individual’s genetics, behaviors, and social and environmental factors can impact risk for birth defects. Even though all births defects can’t be prevented, there are things women can do to help have a healthy baby.
Higher rates of birth defects vary across racial and ethnic groups. Compared to White babies, American Indian/Alaskan Native babies have higher occurrences of ear defects, cleft lip, Trisomy 18 (chromosome abnormality), Encephalocele (defect of the skull and brain) and limb deficiency; Black babies have higher rates of Encephalocele and Trisomy 18; and Hispanic babies have higher rates of Anencephaly (defect of the skull and brain), Encephalocele and Anotia/Microtia (defect of the ear).
“Protecting yourself and making healthy choices is more important now than ever for women trying to become pregnant in the New Year, particularly during this global pandemic,” said Dr. Rahul Gupta, Chief Medical and Health Officer, Senior Vice President, Interim Chief Scientific Officer at March of Dimes. “While current research does not show a direct link from COVID-19 to birth defects, we know that fevers in early pregnancy may be linked to birth defects and pregnant women may have a higher risk of severe illness due to COVID-19. We still have a lot to learn about the virus and now is the time for women to take extra care of themselves as they plan for pregnancy.”
You can adopt behaviors to increase your chances of having a healthy, full-term pregnancy and baby. Here are six tips to follow:
- Protect yourself from COVID-19. Stay safe and help prevent the spread of COVID-19 by wearing a face mask and practicing social distancing. Remember to check for new guidance from the CDC to keep you and your family safe.
- Be sure to take 400 micrograms (mcg) of folic acid every day. Folic acid is a B vitamin proven to help prevent serious birth defects of the brain and spine. Before becoming pregnant and during pregnancy, take a multivitamin containing 400 mcg of folic acid every day to help prevent serious birth defects. Eat foods that contain folate (e.g. lentils, green leafy vegetables), as well as foods made from fortified grain products (e.g. bread, pasta) and those made from fortified corn masa flour (e.g. cornbread, corn tortillas).
- Get a pre-pregnancy checkup. See your health care provider to talk about managing your health conditions and creating a treatment plan before you are pregnant. Speak with them about all of the prescription and over-the-counter medicines, vitamins and supplements you are taking, especially before you stop or start any medication. Creating a treatment plan for your health condition before you are pregnant can help keep you and your developing baby healthy.
- Stay up-to-date on vaccines, including the flu shot. Speak with your health care provider about the vaccines you need during pregnancy to help protect yourself and your baby against serious diseases. Get the flu shot annually before or during pregnancy and get the whooping cough vaccine between 27 and 36 weeks of pregnancy. Also make sure everyone in your family is up-to-date on their vaccinations to help prevent the spread of diseases.
- Before you get pregnant, try to reach a healthy weight. Talk to your health care provider about how to get to a healthy weight before getting pregnant, as being overweight or underweight can affect your fertility and increase the risk of having a baby with a birth defect and other complications. Maintain a healthy lifestyle that includes eating healthy foods and regular physical activity.
- Avoid substances that are harmful during pregnancy.
- Smoking substances such as tobacco during pregnancy can cause dangerous chemicals to damage the placenta and/or reach the baby’s bloodstream. Smoking cigarettes can cause certain birth defects, like cleft lip and palate. If you need help to quit smoking, talk to your health care provider or contact Smokefree.gov (1-800-QUIT-NOW)
- Do not drink alcohol during pregnancy. If you are taking opioids, talk to your health care provider.
- There is no known safe amount of alcohol to have during pregnancy or when trying to get pregnant. Alcohol can cause problems for a developing baby throughout pregnancy, so it’s important to stop drinking alcohol when you start trying to get pregnant.
- Opioid use in pregnancy can cause serious problems for your baby, like preterm birth and drug withdrawal called neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS). Women should consult their physician before stopping or changing any prescribed medication.
- If you or someone close to you needs help for a substance use disorder, talk to a healthcare provider or call SAMHSA’s National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357).
“In these challenging times, it is more important than ever to support each other, and empower women and their partners to make the best decisions for themselves and their families," said Dr. Karen Remley, Director, CDC’s National Center on Birth Defects and Developmental Disabilities. "CDC, March of Dimes, and our committed healthcare community invite you to connect with us in our efforts to reach those who are thinking of pregnancy in the New Year and offer accurate information on planning for a healthy pregnancy and the prevention of birth defects.”
Join the conversation about National Birth Defects Prevention Month and have your questions answered during a Twitter Chat on January 26, 2021 from 2:00-3:00pm ET. Follow @MarchofDimes and @CDC_NCBDDD on Twitter and use hashtag #Best4YouBest4Baby. More information to share with your friends and family will be distributed online from January to World Birth Defects Day on March 3, 2021 by March of Dimes at marchofdimes.org/birthdefects or nacersano.org and by CDC at cdc.gov/birthdefects/preventionmonth.