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January: National Birth Defects Prevention Month

January 16, 2013

January is National Birth Defects Prevention Month. One in every 33 babies is born with a birth defect. If you are thinking about becoming pregnant in the near future, there are a few things that you can do to improve your health and reduce the chance of your baby being born with a birth defect.

Start taking a prenatal vitamin with folic acid.

Folic acid is a B vitamin that our body uses to make new cells. This vitamin is important because when you have enough folic acid in your body, that helps reduce the risk of birth defects of the brain and spinal cord in your baby (also known as neural tube defects such as anencephaly and spina bifida). Folic acid works best in preventing neural tube defects if taken before pregnancy and during the first few weeks of pregnancy, before most women even know that they are pregnant.

Every woman needs 400 micrograms of folic acid every day. The best way to get enough folic acid is to take a daily multivitamin that has 400 micrograms of folic acid (check the label), and by eating healthy foods. Many cereals are fortified with folic acid, so check the label to see if there is enough folic acid in your cereal. Other foods that are high in folic acid are lentils, asparagus, spinach, black beans, broccoli, romaine lettuce, orange juice (from concentrate), and enriched breads and pasta.

Talk to your doctor about vaccines for yourself, before you plan on becoming pregnant.

Review your immunization record with your physician. There are a few vaccine-preventable diseases, such as rubella and varicella (chicken pox) that can affect your baby while he or she is growing inside of you. These diseases can cause birth defects in your baby if you become infected during your pregnancy. These vaccines are live-attenuated vaccines and you should not receive them while you are pregnant, so it is important to review your vaccine records with your physician before you become pregnant.

You should also talk to your doctor about the influenza vaccine. This vaccine is available as a killed-virus vaccine, and you are able to receive this vaccine during pregnancy. Another vaccine to discuss with your doctor is the Tdap vaccine, which helps prevent against tetanus, diphtheria, and pertussis. Most of us have received immunizations for these three diseases when we were young children, but most of our immunity or protection has decreased as we have become adults. It is important to boost our immunity because pertussis, or whooping cough, can make newborn babies very sick. While pertussis might simply cause a cough in older children or adults, young babies can have difficulty breathing, stop breathing, and possibly die from whooping cough.

Practice good hand-washing habits.

Good hand washing is important every day, especially if you are pregnant or about to become pregnant. Hand washing can help reduce your risk of becoming sick. So this tip is important for every day health, and also because some infections can cause birth defects if you become sick when you are pregnant. A few infections that can cause birth defects include cytomegalovirus (CMV, the most common infectious cause of birth defects), parvovirus, syphilis, toxoplasmosis, rubella, and chicken pox.

If you have a cat, do not change the litter box during your pregnancy because that can increase your risk of becoming infected with toxoplasmosis. Cats are the host of this parasite. The reason why it is easier for you to become infected with toxoplasmosis while handling cat litter is because your immune system is slightly weakened when you are pregnant.

Review your medications, and have a list of medications that are safe during pregnancy.

If you take daily medications, review these medications with your doctor before you become pregnant. Some medications may be associated with a higher risk of birth defects in babies. You will need to discuss the risks and benefits of continuing or stopping medications as you are trying to become pregnant, and during your pregnancy. Also ask your physician for a list of medications that are safe to take when you are pregnant. Do not stop or start taking any medications without speaking to your physician first.

If you smoke tobacco or drink alcohol, stop.

This tip is also important in your everyday health, but becomes even more important when you are thinking about become pregnant because of the adverse effects that smoking and alcohol have on your growing baby. Smoking can make it harder for a woman to become pregnant, and can increase the risk of a miscarriage. Babies born to women who smoke throughout pregnancy also tend to have lower birth weight, and have a higher risk of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS). The risk of having a baby born with a birth defect such as cleft lip and palate are also increased in women who smoke during pregnancy.

When a woman drinks alcohol during her pregnancy, her baby also absorbs the alcohol. Alcohol harms the development of a growing baby, and there is no safe amount of alcohol for a woman to drink during her pregnancy. Alcohol can cause birth defects of the face, heart, and brain of a growing baby. Babies that are born to mothers that drink alcohol during pregnancy may also have learning difficulties, be born too early, or have low birth weight.

These are just a few tips that you can follow to help yourself become as healthy as possible before becoming pregnant, and to help reduce the possibility of your baby having a birth defect. Remember to seek regular prenatal care from a healthcare provider, and discuss any concerns that you have about your health and pregnancy. Whether or not you are planning on becoming pregnant, the best time to try to prevent birth defects is now.