Obstetrics and Gynecology
Birth Defects Prevention Guide
All women want to have a healthy baby, but many do not know that the best time to prevent birth defects is before you become pregnant. Below are some of the things you can do before pregnancy that will maximize your chances of having a healthy baby.
Keep any chronic health conditions in check
Most women with chronic medical conditions, such as seizures, diabetes, high blood pressure, and asthma, are able to become pregnant. However, the symptoms of these conditions need to be well controlled before pregnancy.
Women who are diabetic need to make sure their blood sugar is controlled both before and during pregnancy because high blood sugar increases the risk for serious birth defects of the brain, spinal cord, and heart. It also increases the risk for miscarriage and stillbirth. Seizures, high blood pressure, and asthma all also need to be controlled, as all of these can complicate a pregnancy.
Review all current medications with your doctor
Most medications are safe to take during pregnancy. However, you should review all of the medicines you are taking with your doctor because any changes to your medication should be made prior to pregnancy. If you are taking any medicine that is not considered safe during pregnancy, this medication should be stopped before you become pregnant. In most cases, there will be another medication that can be substituted for the one that was stopped if necessary. It is very important that if you do become pregnant that you do not stop taking any of your medication without talking to your doctor first.
Take folic acid daily
Folic acid is a B vitamin that is found in many foods, including cereal, bread, fruits, and vegetables. Having an adequate amount of folic acid in your diet has been shown to reduce the risk of very serious birth defects of the brain and spinal cord. However, most women do not get enough folic acid through diet alone. They also need folic acid supplementation.
It is recommended that most women take 400 micrograms of folic acid daily. This amount can be found in most multivitamins and prenatal vitamins. You can also buy a separate folic acid supplement. If you have already had a baby with a birth defect of the brain or spinal cord, you need to take a higher dose of folic acid. Your doctor can write you a prescription for the correct amount.
Smoking has been linked to problems such as premature birth and low birth weight. Babies who are born early and/or who are underweight are at risk for health complications such as cerebral palsy, learning disabilities and mental retardation. View MetroHealth's free smoking cessation programs.
Do not drink alcohol
It is very well known that heavy drinking during pregnancy can harm a baby. However, even small or moderate amounts of alcohol can affect your baby’s development. Babies who are exposed to alcohol during pregnancy are at risk for birth defects, behavior problems, learning disabilities and mental retardation. Fetal alcohol syndrome is the most severe form of these problems.
No one knows how much alcohol is safe to drink during pregnancy and no one knows which babies will be affected by alcohol and which ones will not. Because of this, women should not drink any alcohol while they are pregnant. In addition, because you will be pregnant for a few weeks before you find out you are expecting, you should not drink any alcohol (this includes beer, wine, wine coolers, and hard liquor) when you are trying to get pregnant.
Know your family history
Family history is very important, as it may directly impact your baby. Find out if anyone in your family or in your baby’s father’s family has any birth defects. Find out if anyone has mental retardation or muscular dystrophy or was born with deafness or blindness. Also find out if anyone has any inherited conditions such as cystic fibrosis, sickle cell anemia, or thalassemia.
Discuss your family history with your doctor. He/she may refer you to a genetic counselor so that you can learn more about how it might affect your baby.
Birth defects prevention information provided by Sheila Johal, MS, CGC, a counselor with the MetroHealth Genetics Clinic.
If you have questions about this information or if would like additional information about the genetics services available at MetroHealth, visit the Genetics Clinic Web site or call 216-778-4323.