When you’re pregnant or trying to become pregnant, new worries are part of the territory, including this one: “What if my child has a birth defect?”
Family history can be a risk factor, and certainly if a prospective mother or father—or a sibling—has a birth defect, a doctor will want to follow the pregnant mother more closely, said Dr. Freddy Montero, a maternal-fetal medicine specialist at Augusta University Health.
Age of the mother is also a risk factor for certain chromosomal disorders, such as Down syndrome, which can lead to birth defects.
Still, it’s estimated that about 2% to 3%, or about 1 in 33 babies in the United States will be born with a birth defect—and we don’t always know why.
If Your Child Is Born With a Birth Defect
The most common birth defects in the United States are: heart defects, cleft lip or palate, Down syndrome, and spina bifida.
But no matter if your baby diagnosed while you’re pregnant or after birth, the news is still extremely shocking and distressing to parents, said Montero. “My job as a maternal-fetal medicine specialist is to help guide them as best I can in a difficult time, and provide as much information as I can to help them understand what’s happening to their baby and how to make the right decisions for themselves and their family.”
For example, Montero talks in detail about how the diagnosis might affect their baby and sets the family up with pediatric subspecialists if their baby will need to have surgery or other specialized procedures. He also can help direct families to support groups if they need to talk with other families with the same diagnosis, as well as counselors if they need more help adjusting to this new normal.
It’s also important for families to realize that while some birth defects might be severe, often they are minor or not life-threatening and surgical management can repair the problem.
What You Can Control
“Not all birth defects are going to be preventable,” Montero said. “There is that baseline risk of birth anomalies. But certainly there are things that expectant moms or families who are actively planning pregnancy can do.”
- Taking folic acid: Part of any prenatal vitamin, folic acid helps reduce the risk of neural tube defects such as spina bifida. Women who are pregnant or want to become pregnant should take at least 400 mcg; most prenatals include 600 mcg, but always check the label. And start early: “Any woman who wants to have a baby should start supplementing with folic acid at least three to six months prior to conceiving,” said Montero.
- Controlling diabetes: Keeping blood sugars in check is important for both a healthy pregnancy and a healthy birth. For pregnancy, uncontrolled diabetes can lead to pre-eclampsia, premature birth and even miscarriage. “Elevated blood sugars can also increase risks of birth defects of the central nervous system and the heart,” said Montero.
- Maintain a healthy lifestyle, including avoiding alcohol, tobacco and drugs: It should go without saying that any woman wanting to become pregnant should start or continue living her best life, eating a balanced diet and being physically active. Alcohol, tobacco and illicit drug use should stop since they can lead to a wide range of birth defects, including fetal alcohol spectrum disorders, cleft lip or palate, or heart defects. Certain prescription medications can also cause birth defects, so make sure to talk to your doctor about any you’re on once you’re ready to start trying for a baby.
But, Montero emphasizes, many times, families do everything right, and their baby is still born with a defect. “The important thing for parents to understand is that they didn’t cause this,” he said. “Again, the overwhelming majority of the time, fetal anomalies happen to families with no risk factors. I’m not talking about patients with poorly controlled diabetes or who use drugs. These are families who are young and healthy and expecting to have and should have by all accounts a straightforward and uncomplicated pregnancy. It’s important for parents to hear this and have that validation that what happened is not their fault, and they shouldn’t try to find an explanation or place blame on themselves.”