How to prevent birth defects

What causes birth defects? While many cannot be prevented, there are steps women can take to limit their child’s risk of developing a condition.

January is National Birth Defects Prevention Month. Birth defects are health conditions that a child has at birth. The condition may be immediately apparent or may be found by testing. Some conditions may not be apparent until later in life. While some birth defects cannot be prevented, there are some things women considering pregnancy can do to limit risks.

What causes birth defects?

Some birth defects cannot be prevented, including those that are passed down to children through their genes, as well as birth defects caused by issues with chromosomes. The cause of the majority of birth defects is unknown. However, some defects are caused by exposure to certain medicines, infections or chemicals in the womb.

How to prevent birth defects

There are certain things women considering pregnancy can do to help lower the risk of birth defects.

    • Take a folic acid supplement to prevent neural tube defects. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) urges all women of reproductive age to get 400 micrograms (mcg) of folic acid each day in addition to consuming food with folate from a varied diet. While folic acid occurs in food, it is hard for women to get enough folic acid through diet alone. Most prenatal and “women’s formula” multivitamin supplements contain 400 to 800 mcg of folic acid. Folic acid should be consumed three months prior to pregnancy.
    • Manage any preexisting conditions before and during your pregnancy. If you have Type 1 or Type 2 diabetes, talk with your doctor before planning your pregnancy. Managing your blood sugar and keeping it stable, while avoiding high blood sugar, may help prevent risks for the baby. High blood sugar around the time of conception can increase the risk of neural tube defects, such as spina bifida, stillbirth and preterm birth.
    • Monitor your BMI. If your body mass index (BMI) is 30 or higher before pregnancy, it can increase birth defect risks for your baby. Working with a maternal-fetal medicine specialist during your pregnancy can help you keep watch on your baby’s health –– and yours.
    • Talk to your doctor about starting and stopping any medications before and during pregnancy. Some medicines may cause issues for women during pregnancy or cause certain birth defects. Some medicines used to treat seizures may cause neural tube defects. Certain antibiotics and anti-inflammatory drugs also may cause issues.

Norton Children’s Maternal-Fetal Medicine

Our expertise in fetal diagnosis and treatment can help make a significant difference for you and your baby throughout your pregnancy and delivery. Being able to closely monitor your pregnancy and being armed with critical information may ease some stress and fears you may experience.
Not in Louisville? Our network of referral centers across the region provides convenient access to our team of board-certified, specialty-trained maternal-fetal medicine perinatologists. Your physician will refer you to Norton Children’s Maternal-Fetal Medicine if you need the extra care.

(866) 574-4111

  • Avoid getting sick –– overheating can increase risk for neural tube defects. Fever or exposure to high temperatures (such as in a hot tub) can increase your body’s core temperature. Try to stay healthy by eating a healthy diet, drinking enough water and washing your hands regularly. Avoid eating or drinking after others, especially any young children at home.
  • Avoid harmful substances, including smoking, alcohol and drugs. Substance use during pregnancy can lead to many different outcomes, including neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS) and fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS). If you or someone you love experiences substance use disorder, the Norton Maternal Opiate and Substance Treatment (MOST) Program offers knowledgeable, supportive staff members who are skilled in caring for pregnant women with substance use disorders — and for their babies.