January is recognized annually by several organizations as National Birth Defects Awareness Month. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a baby is born with a birth defect every four and a half minutes in the United States. That means nearly 120,000 babies are affected by birth defects each year.
Birth defects are structural changes present at birth that can affect almost any part or parts of the body (e.g., heart, brain, foot). They may affect how the body looks, works, or both. Birth defects can vary from mild to severe. Depending on the severity of the defect and what body part is affected, the expected lifespan of a person with a birth defect may or may not be affected.
Although not all birth defects can be prevented, increasing your chances of having a healthy baby can be achieved by adopting healthy behaviors before and during pregnancy. Birth defects can happen for many reasons, but there are steps you can take to prepare for and stay healthy during pregnancy and give your baby the very best start in life.
Firstly, be sure to consult your doctor when planning your pregnancy and start prenatal care as soon as possible. It is absolutely vital to see your healthcare professional regularly throughout the term of your pregnancy and make sure you keep all prenatal care appointments.
When discussing your pregnancy with your healthcare provider, any medications you may currently take will be evaluated. This is because certain medications can cause serious birth defects when taken during pregnancy. Creating a treatment plan for any health conditions before you become pregnant will ensure you keep yourself and your developing baby healthy.
It’s also the time to discuss losing weight before planning a pregnancy. Being overweight while trying to conceive reduces fertility and increases the risk of health problems such as heart disease or diabetes. Achieving an ideal weight before conception will increase your chances of having a healthy baby at birth and into adulthood. Obesity and excess weight gain during pregnancy is also linked with pregnancy complications that can increase the risk of miscarriage.
Pregnancy and Folate (Folic Acid)
Taking folate or folic acid (a B vitamin) before and during pregnancy is critical. Folate is the natural form of vitamin B9, which is water-soluble and naturally found in many foods. It is also added to foods and sold as a supplement in the form of folic acid — this form is actually better absorbed than that from food sources.
Folic acid is important because it can help prevent major birth defects of the brain and spine (anencephaly and spina bifida). These birth defects develop very early during pregnancy when the neural tube — which forms the early brain and the spinal cord — does not close properly. Therefore, pregnant women should start taking folic acid at least one month before becoming pregnant and continue throughout pregnancy. The recommended dose is 400 micrograms (mcg) of folic acid daily.
An added bonus is that food manufacturers are required by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to add folic acid to commonly eaten foods like bread, cereals, pasta, rice, and other grain products to reduce the risk of neural tube defects. This program has helped to increase the average folic acid intake by about 100 mcg/day. [38,39]
In addition to eating foods with natural folate, you can take a vitamin with folic acid every day. Most vitamins sold in the U.S. have the recommended amount of folic acid women need each day but do check the label on the bottle to be sure it contains 100 percent of the daily value (DV) of folic acid (400 mcg.)
Get up-to-date with vaccines, including the flu shot
Getting the influenza (flu) vaccine is the first and most crucial step to protecting against the flu. Pregnant people should get a flu shot, not the nasal spray flu vaccine. Influenza is more likely to cause illness that results in hospitalization in pregnant women than in people of reproductive age who are not pregnant. In addition, influenza can be very harmful to the developing baby. A common influenza symptom, fever, has been associated in some studies with neural tube defects and other adverse outcomes for a developing baby. Getting vaccinated while pregnant also can help protect a baby from influenza after birth (because antibodies are passed to a developing baby during pregnancy). People who get the influenza vaccine while pregnant or breastfeeding also develop antibodies against it that they can share with their infants through breast milk.
For more information about folic acid during pregnancy, visit https://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/folicacid/index.html.
Food Sources that contain folate naturally:
• Dark green leafy vegetables (turnip greens, spinach, romaine lettuce, asparagus, Brussels Sprouts, broccoli)
• Sunflower seeds
• Fresh fruit and juices
• Whole grains
• Fortified foods supplements
Tip: Be sure to take 400 micrograms (mcg) of folic acid everyday