Your obstetrician can determine whether your child is at risk of birth defects. He or she can also recommend lifestyle changes that support a healthy pregnancy.
What are birth defects?
Birth defects affect about 3% of all babies born in the United States. They're a leading cause of infant mortality and may contribute to 20% of infant deaths.
Birth defects develop when your baby is still in the womb. Many birth defects are genetic, passed from parent to child. Some genetic defects can also appear at random.
Other birth defects develop after exposure to harmful substances. Alcohol, illegal drugs, and toxic chemicals can affect an unborn baby. Some prescription drugs can also be dangerous if taken during pregnancy.
Birth defects can vary. Some affect your baby's sight, hearing, or ability to talk. Others can damage your baby's organs or cause physical deformities. Birth defects sometimes cause a miscarriage or stillbirths. If your baby has a birth defect, he or she may need special care.
How are birth defects diagnosed?
During your pregnancy, your obstetrician performs blood tests and ultrasounds. Depending on your age, your provider might also suggest specialized genetic tests. These tests help diagnose birth defects during the first few months of pregnancy.
Some birth defects might not appear until after the birth. Your child's pediatrician can provide the screenings your baby needs. Regular pediatric visits help protect your child's health.
Can birth defects be prevented?
There is no cure for genetic birth defects. But genetic testing can help you learn more about your risk factors. Through genetic testing, you can find out if you're a carrier for certain disorders. Fortunately, non-genetic birth defects can usually be avoided. You can protect your baby by avoiding toxic or harmful substances.
Some prescription medications may harm your baby. If you're planning to get pregnant, talk to your obstetrician first. He or she may suggest stopping certain medications. Do not stop taking your medications without consulting your doctor. Quitting abruptly can be risky. Your doctor can help you taper off your medication slowly.
Is my baby at risk for birth defects?
Your risk for genetic birth defects increases as you age. Pregnant women over 35 have a higher risk of birth defects than women under 35. Birth defects are also more common if your baby's father is over 40.
Life-threatening birth defects are still rare, even among older parents. Many women over 35 are still able to get pregnant and give birth to a healthy baby. Your obstetrician can explain whether you're at a higher risk of birth defects. He or she can also help you protect your pregnancy through lifestyle changes.
What happens if my baby is diagnosed with a birth defect?
If your baby has a birth defect, your obstetrician can explain what this means for you. Symptoms of birth defects can be mild or severe. Sometimes, symptoms can be resolved through surgery or other treatments.
Your provider may decide to refer you to a specialist to review your treatment options. He or she can also help you understand what kind of care your child will need as they get older.
Tips for a Healthy Pregnancy
Take your vitamins
During your first prenatal visit, your obstetrician will recommend prenatal vitamins. But there's no need to wait until you conceive to start taking supplements. If you're planning on getting pregnant, start taking prenatal vitamins right away. Many birth defects develop during the first few weeks of pregnancy. Taking prenatal vitamins before conceiving may help prevent some birth defects.
See your doctor
If you suspect that you're pregnant, see your healthcare provider right away. The sooner you receive prenatal care, the lower your chances of pregnancy complications.
Some birth defects develop after an infection. Vaccines protect your health and keep your unborn baby safe. Pregnant women aren't eligible for some vaccines, so it's best to get vaccinated before getting pregnant. But you can still get some vaccines during pregnancy. Ask your obstetrician which vaccines you need.
Work toward a healthy weight
If you're overweight, your baby may face special health risks. That's why doctors recommend that women achieve a healthy weight before getting pregnant.
If you're overweight and have an unplanned pregnancy, your obstetrician can offer advice. He or she may suggest dietary or lifestyle changes that support your pregnancy. Your obstetrician can also explain how much weight you should gain during pregnancy.
Tips for dads
Moms aren't the only ones who can help fight birth defects. Dads: You can help protect your baby's health, too.
- If you and your partner are planning on getting pregnant, maintain a healthy weight. Regular physical activity and a healthy diet can improve your fertility. Researchers have also found that dads who are physically fit often have healthier children.
- Dads should also avoid alcohol, cigarettes, and illegal drugs. These substances can harm your fertility. They also increase your child's risk of birth defects. Keep in mind that secondhand smoke is dangerous for pregnant women and children. If you smoke, talk to your doctor about quitting. If you must smoke, do so outside.
- Vaccines are important for dads-to-be. If you get sick with a contagious illness, you may pass it on to your partner or baby. Some illnesses can cause miscarriage or stillbirth. Your doctor can help you decide which vaccines you and your family need.
- Your doctor can also offer information about STD testing and prevention. STDs are dangerous for pregnant women. If you're not sure about your STD status, get tested as soon as possible.
- Support your partner and make sure she sees her obstetrician regularly. Routine prenatal care is the best way to promote a healthy pregnancy.
Your obstetrician can provide personalized recommendations, but all pregnant women should avoid alcohol, tobacco, and illegal drugs. Staying healthy, informed, and prepared is the best way to support yourself and your baby both during and after pregnancy.