An estimated 1 in 33 babies is born with a birth defect, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). While some require minimal intervention after birth, many birth defects affect the individual, parents and families across a lifetime.
Birth defects are structural changes present at birth that can affect almost any part of the body. They may affect how the body looks, works or both. They can cause problems in overall health, how the body develops or how the body works, and may range from mild to serious health conditions.
Awareness of birth defects across the lifespan helps provide affected individuals, parents and families the information they need to seek proper care. Learn more about birth defects at each stage of life from the experts at March of Dimes:
Before and During Pregnancy
Not all birth defects are preventable but protecting a mother’s health before and during pregnancy can help increase the likelihood of a healthy baby. Having adequate folic acid for at least one month before getting pregnant and throughout the pregnancy can prevent major birth defects.
Other important steps include receiving proper prenatal care from a doctor, preventing infections, avoiding alcohol and drugs, controlling conditions like diabetes and avoiding getting too hot.
Babies who are diagnosed with a birth defect during pregnancy or at birth may need special care. Similarly, monitoring for certain birth defects can help pinpoint a potential problem and ensure the baby begins receiving supportive care for better survival rates and quality of life. Examples include newborn screenings for critical congenital heart defects and monitoring bladder and kidney function in infants and children with spina bifida.
For children born with heart defects and conditions like spina bifida, muscular dystrophy or Down syndrome, early intervention services and support can make a significant impact on a child’s success in school and life. They can help children with learning problems and disabilities; school attendance; participation in school, sports and clubs; mobility adaptations; and physical, occupational and speech therapy.
Many adolescents and young adults who have birth defects begin working toward a transition to a healthy, independent adult life in their later teen years. This may involve insurance changes and switching from pediatricians to adult doctors.
Other areas of focus might include medications, surgeries and other procedures; mental health; social development and relationships within and outside the family; physical activity; and independence.
Certain conditions, such as heart defects, can cause pregnancy complications or affect sexual function. Talking with a doctor about your specific condition can help you understand your risk.
In addition, every pregnancy carries a 3% risk of birth defects, even without lifestyle factors or health conditions that add risk, according to the CDC. Women who have had a pregnancy affected by a birth defect may be at greater risk during future pregnancies.
Talking with a health care provider can help assess those risks. A clinical geneticist or genetic counselor can assess your personal risk of birth defects caused by changes in genes, as well as your risk due to family history.
Find more information about birth defect prevention and management at marchofdimes.org/birthdefects.
Common Causes of Birth Defects
Research shows certain circumstances, or risk factors, may make a woman more likely to have a baby with a birth defect. Having a risk factor doesn’t mean a baby will be affected for sure, but it does increase the chances. Some of the more common causes of birth defects include:
The things that affect everyday life, including where you live, where you work, the kinds of foods you eat and how you like to spend your time can be harmful to your baby during pregnancy, especially if you’re exposed to potentially dangerous elements like cigarette smoke or harmful chemicals.
Some health conditions, like pre-existing diabetes, can increase a baby’s risk of having a birth defect. Diabetes is a medical condition in which the body has too much sugar (called glucose) in the blood.
Taking certain medicines while pregnant, like isotretinoin (a medicine used to treat acne), can increase the risk of birth defects.
Smoking, Drinking or Using Drugs
Lifestyle choices that affect your own health and well-being are likely to affect an unborn baby. Smoking, drinking or using drugs can cause numerous problems for a baby, including birth defects.
Some infections during pregnancy can increase the risk of birth defects and other problems. For example, if an expectant mother has a Zika infection during pregnancy, her baby may be at increased risk of having microcephaly.
Women who are 34 years old or older may be at increased risk of having a baby with a birth defect.