Discussing Birth Defects

Posted: January 17, 2022 Author: Patti Dipanfilo

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, every 4½ minutes a baby is born with a birth defect in the US. One in every 33 babies born in this country each year is affected by birth defects. They are the leading cause of infant mortality, which is the death of babies before their first birthday. Birth defects account for 20 percent of all infant deaths in the US.

The March of Dimes defines birth defects as structural changes that are present at birth. They may affect how the body looks, works or both.

Some birth defects, such as clubfoot and cleft lip, are easy to see and diagnose at the time of your baby’s birth. Others, such as heart defects and hearing loss, are detected after newborn testing. Still others, such as scoliosis and certain kidney defects, may not be discovered until your child is older. But most birth defects are found within the first year of the baby’s life.

The most common birth defects include congenital heart defects (CHDs), cleft lip and/or cleft palate, Down syndrome and spina bifida.

CHDs are the most common birth defects and include holes in the wall separating the heart’s chambers, a heart that beats too fast or too slow, defects in the heart’s valves that prevent blood from flowing smoothly through the heart, and misplaced blood vessels, which can interfere with the heart’s ability to function efficiently.

A cleft lip is an opening or split in the upper lip. A cleft palate is a split or opening in the roof of the mouth. Cleft lip and cleft palate result when your baby’s lips and mouth don’t form properly during pregnancy.   

Down syndrome is a genetic disorder caused by the presence of an extra chromosome 21. Chromosomes are thread-like structures made up of DNA. Down syndrome symptoms include developmental disabilities; abnormal facial features, including a flat face, small ears and almond-shaped eyes; and health problems such as impaired vision and hearing and heart defects.

Spina bifida is a neural tube defect. With spina bifida, the neural tube, which forms the brain and spinal cord, does not develop properly. When this occurs, the spinal column that protects the spinal cord may not fully form and close around the spinal cord. This can result in damage to the spinal cord and nerves. Babies with severe spina bifida require surgery within 48 hours of birth.

Birth defects can occur at any stage of pregnancy, but most occur during the first three months. That’s when your baby’s organs are forming. But defects can occur during the remaining six months as well, when your baby’s tissues and organs are developing and growing.

The cause of most birth defects is unknown but doctors believe a combination of genetic, behavioral and environmental factors are involved in most cases. Certain factors increase your chances of having a baby with a birth defect. These risk factors include:

  • Smoking, drinking alcohol or taking street drugs during pregnancy
  • Having certain medical conditions, such as uncontrolled diabetes and high blood pressure, and being obese
  • Having a family member with a birth defect
  • Having certain types of infections while pregnant such as those caused by the Zika virus and cytomegalovirus and the parasite Toxoplasma gondii
  • Being an older mother. The risk of birth defects increases after age 35

January is National Birth Defects Prevention Month. While not all birth defects can be prevented, there are some strategies you can follow to help increase your chances of having a healthy pregnancy and a healthy baby. These include:

  • See your health care provider as soon as you find out you are pregnant and keep all your routine prenatal appointments.
  • Keep your diabetes and blood pressure under control and try to maintain a healthy weight. Eat a healthy diet and get regular physical activity. Talk to your doctor about the best ways to exercise while pregnant.
  • Tell your doctor about all medications you take including prescription and over-the-counter medications, as well as all dietary supplements and herbal products. Tell all health care providers who prescribe medication to you that you are pregnant.
  • Take a multivitamin that contains at least 400 micrograms (mcg) of folic acid every day. Folic acid is a synthetic version of a B vitamin called folate. It can help prevent birth defects of your brain and spinal cord such as spina bifida.
  • Avoid substances that can harm your baby. Don’t smoke, drink alcohol or use street drugs during pregnancy.

Take steps to avoid infections and keep your vaccinations up to date. Conditions such as measles and whooping cough can affect your baby during and after pregnancy. A high fever that can accompany an infection can harm your developing baby.

by Patti DiPanfilo

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