What Every Woman Can Do to Help Prevent Birth Defects

Like all pregnant women, your main concern is having a healthy baby. Here's how to help prevent birth defects by taking extra care throughout your pregnancy.


Like every pregnant woman, all you want is a healthy baby. And though preventing some birth defects may be out of your control, you can avoid others by taking certain precautions.

About 150,000 babies are born each year with at least one birth defect. Some birth defects are genetic, passed down from one or both parents. Others can be prevented by following good lifestyle habits.

There are two types of birth defects:

  • Structural. These defects involve a missing or malformed body part. Heart defects are one of the most common structural defects, occurring in one out of 125 babies. Another common structural disorder is spina bifida, which affects one in 2,000 babies. Other such defects are club foot and cleft palate.
  • Functional. These defects affect how a certain body system or part works. They include:
    • Nervous system problems, including mental retardation and other developmental delays. Down syndrome is one of the more common birth defects affecting the nervous system.
    • Sensory problems, like blindness and hearing loss.
    • Metabolic disorders, including thyroid disease and PKU (phenylketonuria), a metabolic disorder that can cause brain damage.
    • Degenerative disorders, which might not be seen at birth but continue to get worse. Examples are Rett syndrome and muscular dystrophy.

Before you get pregnant, you can talk to a genetic counselor if you are at higher risk for passing on an inherited disease. You might be at risk due to your family history, race, ethnicity, age and other factors. Testing can often help you find out if the baby you're carrying is healthy or not. Ask your doctor if you are at increased risk for having a child with birth defects.

Other risk factors are environmental, and can often be prevented. They include:

  • Alcohol and drug abuse. Alcohol use in pregnancy can lead to fetal alcohol syndrome. This can cause mental and physical birth defects.
  • Infections.
  • Exposure to certain medications.
  • Exposure to certain chemicals.

Preventing birth defects
If you're pregnant or planning on becoming pregnant, you can take steps to help avoid birth defects. The following tips can help:

  • Make sure your medications (including over-the-counter) are safe to take during pregnancy.
  • Ask your doctor about prenatal vitamins.
  • Take folic acid to help prevent birth defects of the brain and spine.
  • Make sure you've had all the required vaccinations before you become pregnant. Ask your doctor what vaccines you should have and how long you should wait to become pregnant after you get them.
  • Tell your doctor if you or your partner has a family history of birth defects.
  • Avoid exposure to insecticides and other harmful chemicals.
  • Use condoms to help protect against STDs.
  • Once pregnant, have regular prenatal care. Get the tests and screenings your doctor recommends.
  • Wash your hands frequently.
  • If you have a cat, let someone else empty the litter box. Contact with a dirty litter box can spread toxoplasmosis, a parasitic infection that can harm your unborn baby.
  • Don't smoke, drink alcohol or use drugs.
  • Make sure all meat is cooked thoroughly.
  • Don't use hot tubs or saunas if you may be pregnant.
  • Avoid people who have infectious diseases.
  • Wash your hands before and after preparing meals, especially after handling raw meat.

Don't take chances with your unborn baby's life. You may think you're being overly cautious, but you'll be glad you were when you're rewarded with a healthy, bouncing baby.