As the country enters the third year of the COVID-19 pandemic, March of Dimes, the leading nonprofit fighting for the health of all moms and babies, and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC) are providing tips women can take to have a healthy pregnancy and baby in recognition of National Birth Defects Awareness Month (January 2022). Awareness of birth defects across the lifespan helps provide individuals, parents, and families affected by birth defects with the information they need to seek proper care.
Each year, birth defects affect about 1 in every 33 babies born in the U.S., according to CDC. Mainly developing in the first three months of pregnancy as a baby’s organs form, birth defects present as structural changes at birth that can affect one or more parts of the body (e.g. heart, brain, foot). An individual’s genetics, behaviors, and social and environmental factors can impact risk for birth defects. Common birth defects include congenital heart defects, cleft lip and left palate and spina bifida. Even though all births defects can’t be prevented, there are things women can do to help have a healthy baby.
“The needs of individuals with birth defects evolve over the years. You are not alone in navigating these changes,” said Dr. Karen Remley, Director for CDC’s National Center on Birth Defects and Developmental Disabilities. “Join CDC and March of Dimes in our shared effort to connect individuals, families, and caregivers to resources and support services when they need them most.”
Rates of birth defects vary across racial and ethnic groups. Compared to White babies, American Indian/Alaskan Native babies have higher occurrences of ear defects, cleft lip, Trisomy 18 (chromosome abnormality), Encephalocele (defect of the skull and brain) and limb deficiency; Black babies have higher rates of Encephalocele and Trisomy 18; and Hispanic babies have higher rates of Anencephaly (defect of the skull and brain), Encephalocele and Anotia/Microtia (defect of the ear).
“It’s critical that women who are planning to conceive or are pregnant adopt healthy behaviors to reduce the chances of having a baby with birth defects, which are a leading cause of infant death,” said Dr. Zsakeba Henderson, March of Dimes Senior Vice President and Interim Chief Medical and Health Officer. “We also encourage these women to get the COVID-19 vaccine since high fevers caused by an infection during the first trimester can increase the risk of birth defects.”
Women can adopt behaviors to increase their chances of having a healthy, full-term pregnancy and baby. Here are five tips to follow:
- Have a pre-pregnancy checkup. Visit your health care provider to talk about managing your health conditions and creating a treatment plan before you are pregnant. Talk to them about all of the prescription and over-the-counter medicines, vitamins, and supplements you’re taking. You should see your provider before each pregnancy as your health may have changed since you were last pregnant.
- Get vaccinated. Speak with your health care provider about the vaccinations you need before each pregnancy, including the COVID-19 vaccine, flu shot and the pertussis (whooping cough) booster. Make sure your family also is up-to-date on their vaccinations to help prevent the spread of diseases. Pregnant people have a higher risk of severe illness or death from COVID-19 compared to those without the disease. The COVID-19 vaccination is recommended for all people aged 5 years and older, including people who are pregnant, lactating, trying to get pregnant or might get pregnant.
- Take folic acid. Before becoming pregnant take a multivitamin containing 400 micrograms of folic acid every day and while you are pregnant take 600 micrograms. Folic acid is a B vitamin that prevents serious birth defects of the brain and spine. Eat foods that contain folate, the natural form of folic acid, such as lentils, green leafy vegetables, black beans, and orange juice. You also can eat foods made from fortified grain products (which have folic acid added), such as bread, pasta and cereals and foods made from fortified corn masa flour, such as cornbread, corn tortillas, tacos, and tamales.
- Try to reach a healthy weight. Talk to your health care provider about how to reach a healthy weight before becoming pregnant, as excess weight can affect your fertility and increase your risk of birth defects and other complications. Maintain a healthy lifestyle that includes eating healthy foods and regular physical activity.
- Don’t smoke, drink alcohol or use harmful substances.
- Cigarettes and e-cigarettes contain harmful substances that can damage the placenta and/or reach the baby’s bloodstream. Smoking cigarettes can cause certain birth defects, like cleft lip and palate. If you need help to quit smoking, talk to your health care provider or contact Smokefree.gov (1-800-QUIT-NOW).
- It is not safe to drink alcohol at any time during pregnancy. This includes the first few weeks of pregnancy, when you might not even know you are pregnant. Drinking alcohol can cause serious health problems for your baby, including birth defects. Additionally, do not take opioids. Opioids are drugs that are often used to treat pain. Opioid use in pregnancy can lead to neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS) and preterm birth and may cause birth defects. Women should consult their physician before stopping or changing any prescribed medication.
If you or someone close to you needs help for a substance use disorder, talk to a healthcare provider or call SAMHSA’s National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357).
Learn more by visiting March of Dimes at marchofdimes.org/birthdefects and CDC at cdc.gov/birthdefects.