Congenital heart defects: Can you lower your baby’s risk?

May 17, 2019

Congenital heart defects (also called CHDs) are heart conditions that a baby is born with. These conditions can affect the heart’s shape or how it works or both. CHDs can be mild or serious. The most serious congenital heart defects are called critical congenital heart defects (also called critical CHDs or critical congenital heart disease).

CHDs are the most common types of birth defects. Birth defects are health conditions that are present at birth. They change the shape or function of one or more parts of the body. Birth defects can cause problems in overall health, how the body develops or how the body works.

Here are some things you can do to help reduce the risk of CHDs in your baby:

  • Take a vitamin supplement with 400 micrograms of folic acid each day before pregnancy and take a prenatal vitamin that has 600 micrograms of folic acid in it every day during pregnancy. Taking folic acid before and during early pregnancy can help prevent birth defects of your baby’s brain and spine. Some studies show that folic acid may help prevent CHDs, too.
  • Avoid drinking alcohol during pregnancy. If you’re pregnant, trying to get pregnant or think you may be pregnant, don’t drink alcohol.
  • If you smoke, quit. Women who smoke anytime during the month before pregnancy or during the first 3 months of pregnancy are more likely to have a baby with a CHD than women who don’t smoke.
  • Get to a healthy weight. Being obese (very overweight) can increase the chances of CHDs.
  • Stay up to date on vaccines. Rubella (also called German measles) can increase the risk of CHDs if you get this condition during pregnancy. A vaccine called MMR can protect you and your baby. If you aren’t up to date on vaccines, talk to your provider about getting it at least one month before you get pregnant.
  • Talk to your provider about the medicines you take. Taking certain medicines may increase your baby’s risk of having a CHD. If a medicine you take may be harmful to your baby, your provider may be able to change it to one that’s safer. But some medicines may be critical to your own health, even if they pose some risks to your baby. You and your provider can weigh the benefits and risks of medicine you take to give you the healthiest possible pregnancy.

Talk to your provider if you have these health conditions. Having one of these conditions may increase your risk of having a baby with a CHD:

  • Lupus (also called systemic lupus erythematosus or SLE). Lupus is an autoimmune disease. This is a health condition that happens when antibodies (cells in the body that fight off infections) attack healthy tissue by mistake.
  • Maternal phenylketonuria (also called PKU). PKU is a condition in which your body can’t break down an amino acid called phenylalanine. Most pregnant women with PKU can have healthy babies if they follow a special meal plan that’s low in phenylalanine.
  • Preexisting diabetes (also called type 1 or type 2 diabetes).This is a medical condition in which your body has too much sugar (called glucose) in your blood. If your blood sugar is under control before and during pregnancy, you can reduce the risk of CHDs.
  • Know your family history. If you, your partner or one of your other children has a congenital heart defect, your next baby may be more likely to have one, too. So you may need to meet with a genetic counselor. This is a person who is trained to help you understand genes, birth defects and other medical conditions that run in families, and how they can affect your health and your baby’s health.

To learn more about CHDs, visit