Birth defects are adverse health conditions present at birth. Not all birth defects are preventable, but they can be reduced by managing health issues and choosing healthy behaviors before and during pregnancy. January is a time for families to become aware of the steps necessary to reduce birth defects and improve the chances of having a healthy baby.
Steps to Increase Your Chances of Having a Healthy Baby
Pregnant women and those trying to become pregnant can take the following precautions to increase the chances of having a healthy pregnancy, birth, and postpartum period:
- Take precautions to avoid COVID-19: According to the March of Dimes, pregnant women have a significantly higher risk of severe illness or death from COVID-19 than the nonpregnant. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has revealed that symptomatic pregnant women with the disease have a 70 percent higher risk of death than nonpregnant women. Women with underlying illnesses fare even worse. See the CDC website for precautions pregnant women can take to avoid COVID-19.
- Reach a healthy weight: Obesity or the adverse, being underweight, increase the risk of having a baby with birth defects and a pregnancy and birth with complications. Talk with a health-care provider about ways to reach and maintain a healthy weight.
- Drink extra water: A woman’s blood volume increases up to 50 percent during pregnancy. This extra supply is necessary to provide essential nutrients and oxygen to the baby through the placenta, as well as carry away waste and carbon dioxide. Drinking extra water also helps reduce discomforts caused by constipation, hemorrhoids, headaches, and fatigue, among others.
- Take a prenatal vitamin with 400 micrograms (mcg) of folic acid daily: Folic acid can help prevent some major birth defects of the spine and brain. Most prenatal vitamins meet the 400mcg threshold. Eating fortified foods with folic acid can also help.
- Exercise, as appropriate: Pregnancy typically is not the time to start up a hardcore fitness plan, but exercise is important and necessary to minimize aches and constipation, help with sleep, and lower the risk of gestational diabetes and depression. Talk with your health-care provider about how much exercise is the right amount for you.
- Write a birth plan: Things to consider are where to give birth, the type of caregiver assisting the birth, and any procedures you want to follow. See MedlinePlus’s What to Include in Your Birth Plan for details.
- Be prepared: Attending a childbirth class can help parents ask specific questions and meet other parents going through pregnancy. Ask your obstetrician for a list of classes near you, some of which may be free webinars.
- Practice Kegel exercises: Kegels strengthen the pelvic floor, the muscles that support the bladder, bowels, and uterus. Kegel exercises entail 10 repetitions of squeezing as though trying to stop the flow of urine, holding for three seconds, and relaxing for three seconds.
- Do not smoke: Smoking cigarettes decreases the oxygen flow to the baby, increasing the risk of preterm birth and other complications. For more information, visit the CDC website https://www.cdc.gov/tobacco/campaign/tips/diseases/pregnancy.html.
- Avoid alcohol: According to the March of Dimes, there is no safe amount of alcohol during pregnancy. Drinking can cause a multitude of complications. For a list, visit the March of Dimes’ Alcohol During Pregnancy site.
- Reduce exposure to harmful chemicals and other dangers lurking in homes: Avoid things like solvents, cleaning products, cleaning the cat litter box, and handling raw meat. For a list of chemicals, see the Physicians for Social Responsibility list or the UTSouthwestern Medical Center website.
- Ask your health-care provider about taking medications: Get approval before starting or continuing to take medications, supplements, or natural remedies. Even common drugs like ibuprofen can increase the risk of miscarriage or damage fetal blood vessels.
- Keep track of weight: Too much weight or not enough weight gained in pregnancy can cause major developmental problems in the baby. The Institute of Medicine’s current guidelines are:
- gaining 25–35 pounds if starting pregnancy at normal weight
- gaining 28–40 pounds if underweight
- gaining 15–25 pounds if overweight
- gaining 11–20 pounds if obese
- Eat more fish: Fish high in omega 3 fatty acids can improve a baby’s brain development. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recommends that pregnant women eat up to 12 ounces of fish per week. Seafood high in mercury, however, is unsafe. For a list of safe seafood, visit the Mayo Clinic website.
- Wash hands frequently: To ward off infections, such as group B streptococcus, Fifth disease, and other illnesses that can cause birth defects, frequent handwashing—or using hand sanitizers when washing is not possible—is a must.
- Travel only when necessary: Flying during the second trimester (weeks 14–28 weeks) is the safest time since morning sickness and the risk of miscarriage or early delivery is low. Check with your doctor first and then with the airline for restrictions. In vehicles, sit as far from the air bag as possible. Always wear a seatbelt when in a car, with the lap belt as low as possible on the hips and across the upper thighs and the upper restraint positioned over the collar bone.
- Prepare for the postpartum period: Joining a prenatal yoga or childbirth class, a neighborhood parenting group, or an online forum can help ease the fears and frustrations of pregnancy, childbirth, and the postpartum months, including postpartum depression, which affects 10 percent to 20 percent of women.
- Give in to cravings within reason: Cravings during pregnancy may be a clue to the body that the mother needs nutrients, or it just may be an emotional urge. Giving in to cravings usually is fine if the mom eats a healthy diet overall and the cravings do not include harmful foods. For a list of harmful foods, visit the Mayo Clinic website on foods to avoid .
- Know when to call the doctor: Call your health-care provider or get to a hospital immediately if you are experiencing the following:
- pain of any kind
- strong cramping
- contractions that come in 20-minute intervals
- vaginal bleeding or leaking of fluid
- dizziness, fainting, shortness of breath
- heart palpitations
- nausea and vomiting that is constant
- trouble with walking and swelling of joints
- decreased movement by the baby
- Get plenty of rest: Eight hours of sleep a night and napping during the day will increase energy.
- Wear sunscreen: Pregnant skin is sensitive to sunlight, which can cause sunburn or the dark, blotchy spots on the face known as chloasma. Changes in the skin during pregnancy may also make pregnant women prone to skin cancer. Wear a chemical-free, broad-spectrum sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or more, wear a hat and sunglasses, and avoid tanning beds.
For more information on preventing birth defects, visit the CDC website’s Birth Defects: Preventing Birth Defects page.
Herrick Library Resources
The following resources are available to request and pick up via curbside pickup:
- Diabetes & Pregnancy: A Guide to a Healthy Pregnancy for Women with Type 1, Type 2, or Gestational Diabetes, by David Sacks, ed.
- Mayo Clinic Guide to a Healthy Pregnancy, by Roger Harms and Myra Wick, eds.
- The Pregnancy Encyclopedia: All Your Questions Answered, by Paula Amato and Chandrima Biswas, eds.
- Qué Hacer Cuando Vas a Tener un Bebé, por Gloria Mayer y Ann Kuklierus
- What to Expect When You’re Expecting, by Heidi Murkoff and Sharon Mazel
Sources: CDC, BD Prevention Month, https://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/birthdefects/prevention-month.html#:~:text=January%20is%20National%20Birth%20Defects,and%20their%20impact%20on%20families!; March of Dimes, Alcohol During Pregnancy, https://www.marchofdimes.org/pregnancy/alcohol-during-pregnancy.aspx; March of Dimes, Coronavirus Disease (COVID-19): What You Need to Know About Its Impact on Moms and Babies, https://www.marchofdimes.org/complications/coronavirus-disease-covid-19-what-you-need-to-know.aspx; Mayo Clinic, Pregnancy Nutrition: Foods to Avoid During Pregnancy, https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/pregnancy-week-by-week/in-depth/pregnancy-nutrition/art-20043844; MedlinePlus, What to Include in Your Birth Plan, https://medlineplus.gov/ency/patientinstructions/000567.htm; Parents, 23 Tips for a Healthy Pregnancy, https://www.parents.com/pregnancy/my-body/pregnancy-health/healthy-pregnancy-tips/?; Parents, Is It Safe to Exercise During Pregnancy?, https://www.parents.com/pregnancy/my-body/fitness/is-it-safe-to-exercise-during-pregnancy/; Physicians for Social Responsibility, Prenatal Exposure to Toxic Chemicals, https://www.psr.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/05/prenatal-exposure-to-chemicals.pdf; Sharp, Classes and Events, Pregnancy and Childbirth Classes in San Diego, https://www.sharp.com/health-classes/category/pregnancy-and-childbirth-10; UTSouthwestern Medical Center, 6 In-Home Toxins to Avoid During Pregnancy, https://utswmed.org/medblog/home-toxins-pollutants-pregnancy/