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How to prevent birth defects

January is National Birth Defects Prevention Month and the experts at Arizona Pregnancy Riskline have released the top preventable birth defects. Birth defects are the leading cause of death in children under the age of one. Find out what you can do to raise the odds that you will have a healthy baby.

Newborn baby in incubator

Birth defects affect 160,000 babies each year in the United States. While not all of birth defects are preventable, there are things you can do to decrease the chances your baby will have a neural tube defect, such as spina bifida, heart defect or other learning and behavioral disabilities.

Dee Quinn, founder and director of the Arizona Pregnancy Riskline and a clinical instructor at the University of Arizona, says education is important. “What we know is that many birth defects are simply beyond our control. However, what’s frustrating is that some of these birth defects are indeed preventable, but many women simply don’t know which measures to take,” she says.”I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to educate all women in order to give them the best chances of having a healthy baby.”

Prevent Neural Tube Defects

Neural tube defects, such as spina bifida and anencephaly, are serious malformations of the spinal cord that are life threatening to infants. This birth defect occurs in one in every 1,000 live births.

You can prevent this birth defect 70% of the time by taking at least 400 mcg of folic acid through your childbearing years. Many pregnancies are unplanned and the most important time for women to get adequate folic acid is the first month of conception — and many women don’t even know they are pregnant at this time. Make it a habit to take a multi-vitamin containing folic acid.

Prevent heart defects

Heart defects effect as many of one in 100 live births. Women who are obese at the time they become pregnant (body mass index over 30) have an increased risk of their baby having a heart defect, as well as many other birth defects.

Exercise, eat right and get to a healthy weight before becoming pregnant for your health and your child’s health.

Fetal Alcohol Syndrome

There is much controversy as to what is the safe amount of alcohol when pregnant, but Quinn says to avoid alcohol completely during pregnancy and breastfeeding.

“It’s thought that Fetal Alcohol Syndrome is the most common recognizable environmental cause of mental retardation,” says Quinn. “It’s completely preventable by avoiding alcohol during pregnancy.”

Children born with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome are born small and often have learning and behavioral disabilities, as well as other birth defects.

What else can you do?

“This list is just a start,” said Sara Riordan, genetic counselor at the Arizona Pregnancy Riskline and a clinical instructor in the UA College of Pharmacy. “There are so many things women can do during pregnancy to prevent certain birth defects, such as avoiding cigarettes and illicit drugs. Also, getting early prenatal care to manage of chronic diseases like diabetes and hypertension is crucial.”

Talk with your doctor before taking any medication — over-the-counter or prescription — to find out if it is safe to use during pregnancy. For more information on preventing birth defects, go to for a list of resources and to find out about medications and effects during pregnancy.

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