Intermountain Healthcare

Decreasing the Risk of Birth Defects: Five Ways to Have a Healthy Pregnancy

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(Good Things Utah) January is birth defects awareness month. Birth defects affect about 1 in 33 babies born in the U.S. each year, according to the CDC. Birth defects usually develop in the first three months of pregnancy and can affect the baby’s organs such as the heart or brain or other body parts while they’re developing and can cause problems in your baby’s overall health, and how their body functions.

Common birth defects include congenital heart defects, cleft lip and cleft palate and spina bifida.

“If you’re pregnant or thinking about getting pregnant, your genetics, behaviors and social and environmental factors can impact your risk for birth defects,” said Sean Esplin, MD, senior medical director for Women’s Health at Intermountain Healthcare.

“Not all birth defects can be prevented. And we don’t know the cause of all birth defects. But, there are five things you can do to increase your chance of having a healthy pregnancy, decrease your chance of birth defects, and help us identify birth defects during pregnancy,” he added.

  • Get a pre-pregnancy check-up
    • “If you come in for a pre-pregnancy check-up and prenatal visits, there are several approaches we can take to identify birth defects before birth, including maternal serum screening, done in the first and second trimester and an anatomic ultrasound performed at 18-20 weeks by someone with expertise in evaluating fetal anatomy,” said Dr. Esplin.
  • Control your diabetes before conception
    • Uncontrolled diabetes can result in a high rate of birth defects. If you have diabetes, talk with your OB/Gyn or midwife before you get pregnant. Excess weight can also affect your fertility and increase your risk of birth defects and other complications.
  • Get vaccinated
    • Vaccines for flu and COVID-19 are recommended for pregnant women. Ask your provider about the vaccinations you need. Pregnant people have a higher risk of severe illness or death from COVID-19 and their babies may have an increased risk of preterm birth or complications. High fevers caused by any infection during the first trimester can increase the risk of certain birth defects.
  • Take prenatal vitamins with folic acid before you get pregnant and during pregnancy
    • Vitamins with 600 micrograms of folic acid are recommended during pregnancy. Eat foods that contain folate like green leafy vegetables, black beans, lentils, orange juice and fortified grains.
  • Stop smoking, drinking alcohol or using illicit drugs if you’re pregnant
    • Cigarettes and e-cigarettes contain harmful substances that can damage the placenta and/or cause certain birth defects, like cleft lip and palate. It’s not safe to drink alcohol at any time during pregnancy, even before you know you’re pregnant. Don’t take prescription opioids or illegal drugs while pregnant as they may cause birth defects or affect the baby after birth.

Before you get pregnant, ask your doctor or midwife about any prescription medications, over-the-counter medicines, vitamins and supplements you are taking.

For more information, visit the Intermountain Healthcare website.  

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