All parents want their new baby to be as healthy as possible. Sadly, one of every 33 babies born in the United States has a condition that affects the structure of one or more parts of its body, sometimes referred to as a birth defect. These conditions range from minor problems to serious issues that cause death in one of every five affected infants.
While some birth defects may be linked to a person’s genetic background, medical conditions or exposure to materials in the environment, others can be prevented. Michael Warren, MD, MPH, director of Family Health and Wellness for the Tennessee Department of Health, said women can never start too early in planning for a healthy baby.
“By the time many women learn they are pregnant, much of their baby’s important development is already underway,” Warren said. “The first eight weeks are when organ development occurs, and some women may not know they are pregnant until after that time. It is incredibly important for women of child-bearing age to make healthy lifestyle and behavior changes before they become pregnant, reducing the likelihood of preventable birth defects if they do become pregnant.”
The Tennessee Department of Health offers these suggestions for a healthy pregnancy:
Take folic acid every day (400 micrograms daily beginning at least 30 days in advance of becoming pregnant) to help prevent birth defects of the spine and brain. A single serving of many breakfast cereals can provide the amount you need. Find a list of fortified cereals at www.cdc.gov/NCBDDD/folicacid/cereals.html.
Women with diabetes or other medical conditions that require medication should talk with their health care providers before attempting a pregnancy. Poor control of diabetes immediately before and during pregnancy can cause birth defects in the baby and pose serious health threats to the mother.
Some medications, such as Accutane and other brands of isotretinoin used to treat acne, can increase the risk of birth defects. Discuss with your health care provider all medications you have used, including over-the-counter medications and any herbal or dietary supplements you may take, to be sure none would contribute to birth defects.
Talk with your health care provider about whether you should stop taking any medications required to treat health problems. Some powerful drugs can cause neonatal abstinence syndrome, which forces babies to go through painful withdrawal from addictive drugs their mothers took while pregnant.
Avoid alcohol, all tobacco products and drugs not prescribed by your doctor.
Obese women are at higher risk of having a baby with defects of the brain or spine and some heart defects. Achieving a healthy weight before becoming pregnant can reduce the chances of birth defects.
Infections during pregnancy can cause birth defects. It’s important to wash your hands often, avoid sick people, not drink unpasteurized milk, cook meat thoroughly and stay away from pet rodents and cat litter.
“Don’t wait to start healthy behaviors until you find out you’re pregnant,” said TDH Commissioner John Dreyzehner, MD, MPH. “A great way to give your child an optimal start is to have a planned pregnancy, and to have conversations with your doctor about what you can do to make sure your body is ready for a best start for your baby. Many pregnancies are unplanned so this is an important conversation for any woman of child-bearing age to have. While we strongly advocate planned pregnancies, we also emphasize planning for the unplanned, because a pregnancy can occur when you don’t expect it.”