January is National Birth Defects Awareness Month
Birth defects are structural changes that affect one or more parts of the body (e.g. heart, brain, foot). They develop most often during the first three months of pregnancy, when a baby’s organs are forming and can cause problems in overall health, how the body develops and functions. About 1 in 33 babies in the U.S. is born with a birth defect each year, according to the CDC. Common birth defects include congenital heart defects, cleft lip and cleft palate and spina bifida.
Your genetics, behaviors and social and environmental factors can impact the risk for birth defects, and not all birth defects can be prevented. However, there are things you can do to increase your chance of having a healthy, full-term pregnancy and baby – and National Birth Defects Awareness Month is the perfect time to learn about them. Understanding birth defects across the lifespan can help those affected by birth defects have the information they need to seek proper care.
Here are some actions you can take to learn more.
- Join our Healthy Moms. Strong Babies. Webinar on March of Dimes’ Facebook Page on Jan. 20 2022, 2-3pm ET
- Follow 5 Tips: Learn about the healthy behaviors you can take to prepare for pregnancy and your baby.
1. Have a pre-pregnancy checkup.
Visit your health care provider to talk about managing your health conditions and creating a treatment plan before you are pregnant. Talk to them about all of the prescription and over-the-counter medicines, vitamins and supplements you’re taking. You should see your provide before each pregnancy as your health may have changed since you were last pregnant.
2. Get vaccinated.
Speak with your health care provider about the vaccinations you need before each pregnancy, including the COVID-19 vaccine, flu shot and the pertussis (whooping cough) booster. Make sure your family also is up-to-date on their vaccinations to help prevent the spread of diseases.
- Pregnant people have a higher risk of severe illness or death from COVID-19 compared to those without the disease. Recent research shows that babies of pregnant people with COVID-19 may an increased risk of preterm birth and other complications. High fevers caused by any infection during the first trimester of pregnancy can increase the risk of certain birth defects. The COVID-19 vaccination is recommended for all people aged 5 years and older, including people who are pregnant, lactating, trying to get pregnant or might get pregnant.
3. Take folic acid.
Before becoming pregnant take a multivitamin containing 400 micrograms of folic acid every day and while you are pregnant take 600 micrograms. Folic acid is a B vitamin that prevents serious birth defects of the brain and spine. Eat foods that contain folate, the natural form of folic acid, such as lentils, green leafy vegetables, black beans and orange juice. You also can eat foods made from fortified grain products (which have folic acid added), such as bread, pasta and cereals and foods made from fortified corn masa flour, such as cornbread, corn tortillas, tacos and tamales.
4. Try to reach a healthy weight.
Talk to your health care provider about how to reach a healthy weigh before becoming pregnant, as excess weight can affect your fertility and increase your risk of birth defects and other complications. Maintain a healthy lifestyle that includes eating healthy foods and regular physical activity.
5. Don’t smoke, drink alcohol or use harmful substances.
Cigarettes and e-cigarettes contain harmful substances that can 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).
- It is not safe to drink alcohol at any time during pregnancy. This includes the first few weeks of pregnancy, when you might not even know you are pregnant. Drinking alcohol can cause serious health problems for your baby, including birth defects. Additionally, do not take opioids. Opioids are drugs that are often used to treat pain. Opioid use in pregnancy can lead to neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS) and preterm birth and may cause birth defects. 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).
Learn more from the CDC by visiting their website here.
Last reviewed: December, 2021