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Preventing Birth Defects

Birth defects can range from mild to especially problematic, and, while you may not be able to avoid them all, you can play a significant role in preventing, detecting and treating defects as quickly as possible. In honor of Birth Defects Awareness Month in January, mom.me tapped two docs to weigh in on the ways you can help your developing baby.

Birth defects may be more common than you think: 1 in 33 babies will be born with a defect, for around 120,000 each year in the United States. They are also the most common cause of death in children under a year old, contributing one in five fatalities. “Although some cannot be prevented, others can be with good prenatal care during pregnancy,” says pediatrician Dr. Tanya Altmann, author of Mommy Calls.

If you plan on having children, take folic acid. “It’s a B-vitamin that helps with the building blocks as your baby is developing,” says California-based ob-gyn Dr. Lauren Hyman. “It’s important that all women of childbearing age take 400 micrograms a day, since around 60 percent of pregnancies are unplanned, and the brain and spinal cord closes just one month after conception. Many women don’t even know they’re pregnant yet.” The easiest way to knock out your daily needs is with a simple daily vitamin, which you can pick up at a drugstore or grocery store.

Since brain and spinal defects can be serious, don’t forget about folic acid. If you don’t want to take a pill, eat up: Enriched foods include cereal, lentils, seeds and nuts, citrus fruits and dark, leafy greens. Choose Special K and Raisin Bran for breakfast, which contain 100 percent of your daily folic acid needs in each serving. One cup of spinach covers nearly two-thirds of your daily requirement, and an avocado and cup of steamed broccoli takes care of the rest. “Remember that the brain is developing in primitive form for the first 28 days,” Hyman says. “Once you know you’re pregnant, it’s often too late.” Start with the vitamin now, even if you’re not trying for a new bundle of joy just yet—or again.

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“We know lifestyle choices can reduce the risk of birth defects, like alcohol and cigarettes,” Hyman says. “Unless actively ensuring they don’t get pregnant, women need to think.” Organ growth is continuing along rapidly throughout the first trimester, and a mother’s poor habits may compromise the baby’s development. For instance, Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders, which affect a child’s body and behavior, are completely preventable if you don’t consume alcohol at any time during pregnancy.

Along with lifestyle choices, it’s important to get health conditions in check before pregnancy. “Issues like diabetes and obesity can lead to a much higher risk of cardiac malformation,” says Hyman. But you should also check out your medications to make sure they are compatible with pregnancy. Some drugs, like isotretinoin to treat acne and lisinopril to treat high blood pressure, could cause birth defects. Don’t forget to take care of yourself, then you take on the care of another, much smaller and much more fragile, human being.

Since bacteria and germs are particularly tough on a developing baby, Hyman says she’ll “make sure there are no infections, and suggest vaccinations for chicken pox, rubella and measles” before pregnancy, if needed. While carrying, be hyperaware when it comes to washing your hands, stay away from the sick, avoid undercooked meat and avoid unpasteurized milk. Also, ask your doctor about B strep, a type of bacteria 1 in 4 women will carry that can be passed from mom to baby during childbirth. You won’t feel sick, but it could cause issues like pneumonia or meningitis, which have significant long-term complications. A simple swab test near your due date can diagnose.

There are two types of screening tests to keep in mind when it comes to birth defects. First: “Women can consider genetic screening tests to see if you or your husband are carriers for certain diseases, like sickle-cell anemia or cystic fibrosis,” says Hyman. If you are both carriers for a disorder, your doctor may monitor the baby’s development more closely with ultrasounds and blood tests.

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Second, the mandatory Newborn Screening Test has changed the game for catching many defects early. A baby will be immediately screened for disorders, and then your pediatrician will monitor her progress. “Most defects are discovered in the first few days with with a blood drop test, and many can be helped with medication or formula adjustments,” Altmann says.

Keep up with those many exams in the first weeks and months after birth, finding a pediatrician you really love. “When we’re doing regular exams and checkups, we’ll be keeping an eye out,” says Altmann, who says common defects like hypothyroidism can be easily treated today with supplements, and babies can develop normally if nabbed early. “Some defects may be apparent on a physical exam, like a heart murmur, and some may be more subtle.” A good pediatrician will notice potential defect-related problems, test and treat.

Do what you can to prevent birth defects, but don’t let the risks consume you. A lot won’t present while pregnant, or are unavoidable, so you may have to roll with the punches no matter how much you prepare. “Just remember, at the end of the day, some things are out of our hands,” says Hyman. Tackle those issues as they arise with a mom’s hallmark care and courage.

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