Tips to Prevent Birth Defects

Did you know that about 120,000 babies are affected by birth defects each year in the United States? In North Carolina, approximately 4,000 babies are born with a serious birth defect each year. The most common birth defects are heart defects (“cardiovascular defects”), defects of the spine and brain (“neural tube defects”) and defects of the lip and roof of the mouth (“orofacial clefts”). These types of birth defects together represent about 40 percent of all serious birth defects in North Carolina. Not only can birth defects lead to lifelong challenges and disability, they are also the most common cause of death in infants and the second most common cause of death in children aged one to four years.

January is National Birth Defects Prevention Month. The theme for 2021 is “Best for You. Best for Baby.” We know that not all birth defects can be prevented, but you can increase your chances of having a healthy baby by doing what you can to be your healthiest self both before and during pregnancy. Here are five tips for moms in preventing birth defects:

  1. Be sure to take 400 micrograms (mcg) of folic acid every day. Folic acid is very important because it can help prevent some major birth defects of the baby’s brain and spine when taken before and during early pregnancy.
  2. Book a visit with your healthcare provider before stopping or starting any medicine. There are often benefits to continuing treatment throughout pregnancy. Discussing a treatment plan before a pregnancy allows a woman and her health care provider to weigh the pros and cons of all options to keep mom and baby as healthy as possible.
  3. Become up-to-date with all vaccines, including the flu shot (and the covid shot once available). Having the right vaccinations, like the flu and Tdap vaccines, at the right time during pregnancy can help keep a woman and her baby healthy. 
  1. Before you get pregnant, try to reach a healthy weight. Obesity increases the risk for several serious birth defects and other pregnancy complications.
  2. Boost your health by avoiding harmful substances during pregnancy, such as alcohol, tobacco, and other drugs. There is no known safe amount of alcohol during pregnancy and its exposure can cause major birth defects. Smoking during pregnancy can cause dangerous chemicals to damage the placenta and/or reach the baby’s bloodstream. The opioid addiction epidemic has led to a sharp increase in Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome (NAS), premature birth and drug withdrawal in developing babies.

Every 4 ½ minutes a baby is born with a birth defect in the United States. Simply put – it doesn’t have to be that common. While mom’s play a critical part in the health and well-being of her unborn child, a dad’s behavior also plays a critical role before and during pregnancy. 

Here are five tips for dads-to-be in preventing birth defects in their children:

  1. Try to maintain a healthy weight. Incorporate eating healthy food and regular physical activity into your daily routine. Obesity in men has been linked to lower fertility and a higher risk of insulin dysregulation issues in their children.
  2. Boost your health by avoiding harmful substances. Protect yourself and your partner by quitting smoking and avoiding secondhand smoke and air pollution. Do not drink excessively or use certain drugs, such as cocaine or heroin. Avoid excessive use of marijuana. Use of marijuana has been linked to lower sperm production and lower sperm quality. Avoid use of anabolic androgenic steroids, particularly when trying to conceive. Use of testosterone derivatives has been associated with short-term subfertility and longer-term decreases in normal testosterone production. If you require pain management or addiction treatment, talk to your healthcare provider about alternatives to long-term use of opioids. Long-term use of opioids can interfere with testosterone production, which is important for sperm production.
  3. Avoid harmful workplace exposures. Ask questions about hazards in your workplace. You have a legal right to receive information on hazards in your workplace. Learn how to avoid bringing work hazards home on your skin, clothes, and shoes.
  4. Avoid infections. Get the flu shot and the whooping cough vaccine to avoid passing these viruses to your pregnant partner and your newborn infant. Protect yourself and your partner from insects known to carry diseases such as Zika virus. Zika can cause birth defects. When mosquitoes are active, wear long-sleeved shirts and long pants when outside. Use Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) registered insect repellents with one of the following active ingredients: DEET, picaridin, IR3535, or oil of lemon eucalyptus (paramenthane-3, 8-diol). If you are planning to conceive with your partner, consider avoiding travel to an area with Zika virus or wait at least three months after your return before trying to conceive with your partner. Practice good hygiene. Wash your hands often with soap and water. Talk to your healthcare provider about how to prevent sexually transmitted infections (STDs).
  5. Maintain good mental well-being and be supportive of your partner during pregnancy. Talk to your healthcare provider about resources to plan for mental well-being during parenthood. Some women experience depression during pregnancy or immediately after birth, and this can impact her partner. Take an interest in your partner’s health during pregnancy. Infants have fewer complications at birth when fathers are involved with their partners during pregnancy. Talk to your healthcare provider about your role in care and development of your future child.

If you and your partner are considering becoming pregnant, follow the above tips to reduce the risk of birth defects in your baby. Do not stop taking prescription medications without first consulting your doctor. And let your pharmacist know if you are expecting, too!