January is National Birth Defects Prevention 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, fully-term pregnancy and baby – and National Birth Defects Prevention Month is the perfect time to learn about them.

Here are some actions you can take to learn more. 

  • Join our Twitter Chat (Jan. 26 2021, 2-3pm ET): Follow @MarchofDimes on Twitter and use hashtag #Best4YouBest4Baby to ask questions and learn more about birth defects during this chat and throughout January.
  • Follow 6 Tips: Watch this video and review the tips below to learn about the healthy behaviors you can take to prepare for pregnancy and your baby.
  1. 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 stay safe.  
  2. Be sure to take 400 micrograms (mcg) of folic acid every day. Before becoming pregnant and during pregnancy, take a multivitamin containing 400 micrograms (mcg) of folic acid every day. Taking folic acid before and during early pregnancy can help prevent neural tube defects in your baby. Eat foods that contain folate, the natural form of folic acid, such as lentils, green leafy vegetables, black beans and orange juice and foods made from fortified grain products (some breads, breakfast cereals) and fortified corn masa flour (corn tortillas, tacos).
  3. Get a pre-pregnancy checkup. See your health care provider to talk about managing your health conditions and creating a treatment plan before each pregnancy. Speak with them about all of the prescription and over-the-counter medicines, vitamins and supplements you’re taking, and especially before you stop or start any medication. 
  4. Stay up-to-date on vaccines. Speak with your health care provider about the vaccines you need during each pregnancy to help protect yourself and your baby against serious diseases. Get the flu shot before or during each 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. Ask your health care provider about when the COVID-19 vaccine will be available for pregnant and breastfeeding women. 
  5. Before you get pregnant, try to reach a healthy weight. Being overweight or underweight can affect your fertility and during pregnancy obesity can increase the risk of having a baby with a birth defect and other complications. Talk to your health care provider about how to get to a healthy weight before getting pregnant. Maintain a healthy lifestyle that includes eating healthy foods and regular physical activity. 
  6. Avoid substances that are harmful during pregnancy. 
    1. 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) 
    2. 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 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).

Learn more from the CDC by visiting their website here.

Last reviewed: December, 2020