how to reduce birth defects

How to Reduce Risks of Birth Defects

What is a birth defect?

A birth defect is a condition that is present at birth. Some birth defects can be seen right after the baby is born, such as a clubfoot or extra fingers or toes. Special tests may be needed to find others, such as heart defects or hearing loss. Some birth defects are not noticed until later in life.

What causes birth defects?

Some birth defects are caused by genes that inherited from parents by children. Others result from problems with chromosomes. A small number of birth defects are caused by exposure during pregnancy to certain medications, chemicals and infections. For number of birth defects, the exact cause is not known.

What can I do to decrease my risk of having a baby with birth defects?

Most birth defects cannot be prevented because their cause is not known. For a few birth defects, you may be able to decrease your risk by taking following steps:-

  • See your doctor before becoming pregnant.
  • Take a daily multivitamin before and during pregnancy.
  • Prevent infections.
  • Maintain a healthy weight.
  • Use medications only after consultation from a doctor.
  • Know your risk factors.
  • Take care of medical conditions before pregnancy.
  • Do not use alcohol or illegal drugs.
  • Avoid known harmful agents.

Why should I see a gynecologist before pregnancy?

Scheduling a health care visit before becoming pregnant is a good idea. Along with getting advice about diet and exercise from your health care professional, you can discuss whether you have any factors that increase the risk of having a child with a birth defect. If you have a medical condition, you also can discuss any special care that you may need before or during pregnancy. (see also: “How to Plan and Prepare for a Healthy Pregnancy”)

What are risk factors of having a baby with a birth defect?

You may be at an increased risk of having a baby with a birth defect if you:-

  • are older
  • have had a child with a birth defect
  • have a family or personal history of birth defects
  • have a medical condition such as diabetes or obesity
  • use certain medicines around the time you become pregnant
  • use recreational drugs or drink alcohol during pregnancy

If you have any risk factors, your gynecologist may recommend special tests or other steps that may help reduce your risk. For example, if you have a personal or family history of birth defects, genetic counseling and testing may be recommended.

What do I need to know about taking medications during pregnancy?

A few medications have been linked to birth defects. You should tell anyone who prescribes drugs for you that you are pregnant or thinking of becoming pregnant. This includes doctors you see for nonpregnancy problems, mental health care providers, and your dentist. Also, check with your health care professional before taking any over-the-counter drug, such as pain relievers, laxatives, cold or allergy remedies, vitamins, herbal products, and skin treatments.

Why is taking a multivitamin important before and during pregnancy?

Prenatal vitamin supplements contain the recommended amounts of the vitamins and minerals you will need during your pregnancy, such as vitamins A, C, and D; folic acid; and minerals such as iron. Taking 400 micrograms of folic acid daily for at least 1 month before pregnancy and during pregnancy helps prevent major birth defects of the baby’s brain and spine called neural tube defects. Most prenatal and “women’s formula” multivitamin supplements contain 400–800 micrograms of folic acid.

How can obesity have an impact on my pregnancy?

Women who are obese (defined as having a body mass index [BMI] of 30 or greater) when they become pregnant have an increased risk of having babies with certain birth defects than women who are a normal weight. Among the most common obesity-related birth defects are neural tube defects, heart defects, and cleft palate. If you are planning a pregnancy, the best way to prevent problems caused by obesity is to be at a normal weight before you become pregnant. (You can check your BMI using “BMI Calculator“)

Why is it important to talk to my gynecologist if I have certain medical conditions and am planning pregnancy?

Some medical conditions—such as diabetes mellitus, high blood pressure, and seizure disorders—may increase the risk of having a baby with certain birth defects. If you have a medical condition, see your health care professional to discuss any changes you need to make in your diet, medication, or other areas to bring the condition under control before you try to become pregnant.

Why is it important for me to not drink alcohol during pregnancy?

Alcohol use during pregnancy is a leading cause of birth defects. “Fetal alcohol spectrum disorders” is a term that describes different effects that can occur in the fetus when a woman drinks during pregnancy. These effects may include physical, behavioral, and learning disabilities that can last a lifetime. One of the most serious effects of drinking during pregnancy is fetal alcohol syndrome. Birth defects caused by alcohol are 100% preventable by avoiding all alcohol while you are pregnant.

What infections should I be concerned about and how can I reduce my risk of getting them during pregnancy?

Some infections can increase the risk of birth defects and other problems during pregnancy for you and your growing baby:

  • Rubella (German measles) is a viral infection that usually causes a mild rash and a low fever. Having rubella during pregnancy can cause miscarriage or result in deafness, intellectual disability, heart defects, and blindness in your newborn. There is a vaccine against rubella, but it is not recommended for pregnant women. If you have not already had the disease or been vaccinated, you should be vaccinated against rubella and wait at least 1 month before becoming pregnant.
  • Toxoplasmosis is a disease caused by a parasite that lives in soil. You can become infected by eating raw or undercooked meat or unwashed vegetables or by coming into contact with animal feces, especially from cats that go outdoors. If you are infected for the first time while you are pregnant, you can pass the disease on to your baby. Toxoplasmosis can cause birth defects, including hearing loss, vision problems, and intellectual disability. Make sure that you eat well-cooked meat and wear gloves while gardening or handling unwashed vegetables. If you have an outdoor cat that uses a litter box, have someone else empty it. If you must empty the litter box, use gloves and wash your hands well after doing so.
  • Sexually transmitted infections (STIs) can cause serious birth defects. Treating an STI—preferably before you become pregnant—may prevent or reduce harm to the fetus.
  • Cytomegalovirus (CMV) is a common viral infection. Most CMV infections cause no significant problems. If you are infected for the first time when you are pregnant, CMV can infect the fetus. In a small number of cases, the infection can cause intellectual disability, hearing loss, and vision problems. CMV can be spread by contact with an infected child’s urine or other body fluids. Pregnant women who work with young children, such as day care workers or health care workers, should take steps to prevent infection, such as wearing gloves when changing diapers. Frequent handwashing also is recommended.

What precautions can I take to limit my exposure to agents that can cause birth defects?

A few precautions that are recommended for all pregnant women include the following:

  • Limit your exposure to mercury by not eating eat shark, swordfish, king mackerel, or tilefish. Limit eating white (albacore) tuna to 6 ounces a week. You do not have to avoid all fish during pregnancy. In fact, fish and shellfish are nutritious foods with vital nutrients for a pregnant woman and her growing baby. Be sure to eat at least 8–12 ounces of low-mercury fish and shellfish per week.
  • Avoid exposure to lead. Lead can be found in old paint, construction materials, alternative medicines, and items made in foreign countries, such as jewelry and pottery.
  • Avoid taking high levels of vitamin A. Very high levels of vitamin A have been linked to severe birth defects. You should consume no more than 10,000 international units of vitamin A a day.


Dr Sobia Mohyuddin

MCPS, FCPS, MRCOG, Consultant Obstetrics & Gynaecology

Doctor Sobia Mohyuddin is a highly skilled and experienced Obstetrician and Gynecologist, with 25 years of training and experience in renowned, large institutions. She holds the position of Associate Professor and Fellow at the College of Physicians and Surgeons Pakistan. She is also a member of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (UK).