Approximately 1 in 33 babies in the United States are born with a birth defect, ranging from minor to severe. Some birth defects affect organ function and mental development, while others affect a baby’s appearance. Though not all birth defects can be prevented, there are steps that mothers and their partners can take before and throughout pregnancy to lower the risk.
January is National Birth Defects Prevention Month, so we thought we would share a compilation of ways that mothers can help prevent birth defects before becoming pregnant and throughout pregnancy.
Dietary Changes Mothers Can Make Before Becoming Pregnant
Understandably, not every mother can plan for pregnancy before they conceive, but healthy pregnancies are closely reliant on the mother’s health before she becomes pregnant. Dietary preconception changes women should make include:
Healthy caloric intake
Women need a healthy and balanced diet of 2,000 kcal a day to maintain their weight. Obesity ups the risk of delivering a child with birth defects substantially. Being obese before pregnancy increases the risk of hypertension during pregnancy and gestational diabetes by 11 times.
Other complications such as miscarriage, shoulder dystocia, blood clots, and stillbirth increase in likelihood as well. Women who struggle with obesity should aim to lose 5-10% of their weight before becoming pregnant to significantly decrease the chances of birth defects.
Increased consumption of folic acid
Folic acid is the synthetic form of folate, which is a type of vitamin B-9. Folic acid is a dietary necessity for women planning on conceiving, and one of the primary reasons women are advised to take prenatal vitamins. Taking a prenatal vitamin before and during pregnancy helps prevent birth defects affecting the baby’s brain and spinal cord by 50%-70%. The Department of Health recommends that women take prenatal vitamins until at least the 12th week of pregnancy.
Other great sources of folic acid include:
- Leafy greens
- Citrus fruits
- Brussel sprouts
- Nuts and seeds
- Fortified grains
Increased consumption of vitamin D
Yet another reason for women struggling with obesity to focus on losing weight is that pre-pregnancy obesity is linked to vitamin D deficiency during pregnancy. Insufficient vitamin D levels during pregnancy result in calcium deficiency. For the mother, this results in heightened fatigue, muscular aches and cramps, and facial constriction. For her baby, calcium deficiencies lead to bone softening (maternal osteomalacia), pre-eclampsia, low birth weight, neonatal tetanic seizures, and childhood rickets.
Lifestyle Modifications Mothers Can Make before Becoming Pregnant
Smoking for both men or women
According to the American Pregnancy Association, some 12% to 20% of pregnant women smoke, and over 1,000 babies in the United States die each year because their mothers smoked while pregnant. If the baby does not die, the risk of birth defects dramatically increases, such as spontaneous miscarriage, placenta praevia, preterm premature rupture of membranes, and congenital malformation.
Experts recommend that women who smoke stop smoking no less than one month before conception and that there should be no nicotine in the mother’s system when she conceives. Women aren’t the only ones who must stop smoking. For men, smoking is responsible for a reduction in sperm concentration and motility up to 22%.
Women who are planning on conception must cut out alcohol and illicit drugs at all costs. In western countries, Fetal Alcohol Syndrome affects approximately 1 in every 500 babies, with as many as half going undiagnosed. Children with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome have learning difficulties, physical disabilities, behavioral problems, and often severe emotional and psychiatric problems that will last throughout their lives.
There is no such thing as a minimal amount of alcohol that is safe for consumption during pregnancy, and it’s highly advised for women to cut alcohol out completely while trying to get pregnant.
Dietary and Lifestyle Modifications Women Should Take During Pregnancy
Take extra precautions to prevent infections
Many infections that women can contract during pregnancy can have a devastating effect on fetal development. Mothers should routinely wash their hands, especially after touching raw meat, gardening or touching soil and/or fertilizers, handling pets, playing with children, and using the restroom.
Mothers should also avoid unpasteurized milk and foods made from it, which can contain harmful bacteria, like Listeria. Mothers with cats must also avoid changing litter, which can contain a harmful parasite that leads to toxoplasmosis.
Keep out of hot tubs and treat fever promptly to Prevent Birth Defects
It’s very important that mothers maintain a consistent body temperature, and avoid anything that will cause their core body temperature to rise. Overheating in any way can increase a woman’s chance of having a baby with neural tube defects, such as spina bifida.
Mothers who come down with a fever during pregnancy should make an appointment to speak with their doctor as soon as possible to rule out causes, and avoid aspirin or ibuprofen unless specifically recommended by their doctor. Identify your immunity ID to further prevent sickness.
Avoid these raw and unpasteurized foods:
- Cold cuts and deli meats, pre-stuffed fresh turkey or chicken, steak tartare, undercooked meats, or refrigerated meat spreads.
- Locally caught bluefish, pike, salmon, striped bass, trout, walleye, lox, sushi, or raw shellfish.
- Raw eggs, raw cookie dough with eggs in it, caesar salad dressing, and other sauces with raw eggs like bearnaise sauce, hollandaise sauce, and mayonnaise.
- Homemade desserts with raw eggs, including mousse and tiramisu.
- Unpasteurized milk and cheese.
- Unwashed fruits and veggies, raw sprouts, unripe papaya, and fresh-squeezed juice.
Prevent Birth Defects, finally, by keeping in close contact with your doctor and visit them regularly.
If you’re not sure where to find an obstetrician, your first resource should be your insurance provider. Mothers also commonly find great obstetrician recommendations at childbirth classes or from childbirth educators. Finally, mothers can find a list of obstetricians online at the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists.
No matter how big the dietary or lifestyle change is, there’s nothing more important than the mother’s and baby’s health. A mother’s nutritional needs continue to be important after she has given birth and is breastfeeding.
Always remember that what you eat, your baby eats too. Every healthy choice a mother makes is a healthy choice for their baby as well.