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The Three Most Common Preventable Birth Defects and Their Causes

Experts at New York's Pregnancy Risk Network Teratogen Information Service (PRN), a non-profit that aims to educate women about all types of exposures that pose risk to pregnancy and breastfeeding, report that 160,000 babies are affected by birth defects each year in the U.S. Approximately 3 percent of the babies born each year in New York are born with birth defects, some of which can be prevented.

In honor of National Birth Defects Prevention Month, which is recognized during January of each year, the PRN is stepping up efforts to help educate the public about preventable causes of some common birth defects. Specialists at the PRN have compiled a list of a few of the preventable causes of some of the most common birth defects:


1. Neural Tube Defects and Folic Acid Supplementation

Neural tube defects are malformations of the spinal cord that are serious and can be life-threatening. Two of the most common neural tube defects are spina bifida and anencephaly, and these occur in about 1 in every 1,000 live births. Getting enough folic acid, and following recommendations to take a multivitamin with folic acid or a folic acid supplement containing at least 400 mcg daily during all of the years that a woman is capable of becoming pregnant can prevent up to 70 percent of these defects. Because the neural tube closes in the first month after conception, a time when many women do not yet realize they are pregnant, it is important for women, in addition to a healthy diet, to be taking supplements before pregnancy. That is why the recommendation is to take supplements throughout the childbearing years.


2. Heart Defects and Maternal Obesity

Heart defects are some of the most common malformations. The various types of errors in the formation of the heart may occur in as many as 1 in 100 live births. Mothers who are obese at the time they become pregnant (Body Mass Index >30) seem to have an increased chance of having a baby with several kinds of birth defects, including heart defects. If mothers can reduce body weight by making healthy lifestyle changes prior to becoming pregnant, this can help prevent heart and other defects in their baby.


3. Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS) and Maternal Drinking

"Alcohol is the most common recognizable environmental cause of birth defects associated with mental retardation," says Luther K Robinson MD, founder of the Pregnancy Risk Network. Children with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome are born small, have problems with learning and behavior, and may have other birth defects. "It's completely preventable by avoiding alcohol during pregnancy," Dr. Robinson says. This means that women who have the potential to become pregnant can prevent having a child affected by alcohol by modifying their alcohol drinking habits prior to becoming pregnant. Once a woman knows she is pregnant, she can prevent later effects of alcohol on the baby's growing brain by avoiding alcohol through the remainder of the pregnancy and during breastfeeding.

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