The best advice on preventing birth defects
Pregnancy is generally a joyous time filled with excitement and wonder. But as any expectant mother will tell you, there’s always an undercurrent of anxiety about the unborn baby’s health. If you’re pregnant, your fears aren’t unfounded: according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, birth defects affect 1 in every 33 babies born in the United States, and account for 20 percent of all infant deaths. .
Generally, a birth defect is defined as abnormal development of the fetus that results in malformation, functional disorders, or death. The vast majority of birth defects develop in the first trimester, and vary from those that require little or no treatment, such as microphthalmia (abnormally small eyes) or isolated dextrocardia (when the heart is in the right side of the chest instead of the left, but is otherwise healthy) to life-threatening conditions such as Tay Sachs, a rare but fatal disorder that destroys nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord, or anencephaly, in which a baby is born without parts of the brain and skull.
Causes vary widely; about 10 percent of birth defects can be traced to environmental causes, such as smoking, use of street drugs, some prescription medications, exposure to toxins, excessive alcohol intake, or nutritional factors, and about 20 percent are genetic. The remaining 70 percent are caused by unknown factors—although some reports say that experts believe 25 percent or more of birth defects have environmental causes.
You can’t eliminate all risk, but you can dramatically reduce the risk of your child being born with birth defects. Follow these seven tips and practices for a lower-risk pregnancy to prevent birth defects—and put your mind at ease.
7 ways to prevent birth defects
1. Avoid environmental chemicals
Because chemicals and toxins can pass through the placenta and directly into the fetus’ blood supply, it’s critical that pregnant women avoid exposure to any potential toxins. The most common toxins in daily life include solvents such as oil-based paints and paint thinner, gasoline, lead in some paints; contaminated water; and pesticides. Your best bet: avoid toxins at all costs. If you work in a high-risk profession, such as conventional agriculture or anything that involves exposure to industrial cleaners, solvents, paints, or gasoline, find a way to eliminate exposure—or find another job.
2. Switch to natural household cleaners
A 2010 study by the New York State Department of Health found children born to women who held cleaning jobs while pregnant had a significantly higher risk of birth defects. Because regulations don’t require companies to reveal their ingredients, you have no way of knowing what’s in chemical cleaners. Protect your baby with all-natural household cleaners that use pure essential oils and mild cleansing ingredients.
3. Choose natural personal care products
According to the Environmental Working Group, many chemicals in personal care products may cause birth defects. Studies have linked prenatal exposure to phthalates—found in nail polish, fragrances, and other products—to abnormal reproductive development in baby boys.
Hair dyes contain chemicals shown to cause birth defects in rats, so consider using natural, plant-based hair coloring such as henna, especially during the first trimester.
4. Get enough iodine
Iodine deficiency can increase the risk of fetal death, impaired neurocognitive development, and cretinism, a birth defect that results in impaired physical and mental growth. Iodine is found in iodized salt, dairy products, bread, seaweed, and fish, and deficiencies are uncommon for most women in the United States. But during pregnancy, the body’s need for iodine increases, so you may be at risk—a recent study estimates that almost one-third of pregnant women in the U.S. are iodine-deficient—especially if you eat a low-salt diet or you’re vegan.
The American Thyroid Association recommends that pregnant women take multivitamins containing 150 mcg of iodine daily, in the form of potassium iodide, during preconception, pregnancy, and lactation. Kelp tablets are an option, and you can get additional dietary iodine by eating kelp and seaweed. For example there is about 35 mcg of iodine per gram of nori. Wakame has 3 times that much and kombu about 6 times as much. But don’t overdo it; in a recent study, women who took excessive supplemental iodine during pregnancy gave birth to babies with congenital hypothyroidism, a thyroid deficiency that can lead to intellectual disabilities, delayed growth, and heart problems. Ask your doctor for recommendations.
5. Go alcohol-free
Don’t drink during pregnancy, not even the occasional glass of wine. Because alcohol passes through the placenta and goes directly into the developing fetus’ blood supply, no amount of alcohol is safe. Excessive alcohol consumption can cause Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders, including Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, the leading preventable cause of intellectual disability in the U.S. Drinking during pregnancy can also increase the risk of miscarriage and stillbirths.
Some women choose to drink nonalcoholic beer and wine during pregnancy, but you should know that most “nonalcoholic” beers and wines do contain trace amounts of alcohol. Alcohol-free beer and wine, on the other hand, cannot contain any alcohol at all. It’s not likely that the trace amounts of alcohol in “nonalcoholic” beer and wine will increase the risk of birth defects, but if you drink them often or in large quantities, it’s something to keep in mind.
6. Don’t smoke
Ever. Besides the fact that it’s deadly for your health, smoking also reduces the amount of oxygen available to the developing fetus; can cause premature birth, low birth weight and death; and significantly increases the risk of birth defects. A recent study that looked at 50 years of research, with information on nearly 12 million infants, found that babies born to mothers who smoked had a 20–30 percent higher chance of shortened or missing arms and legs, cleft lips and cleft palates, and abnormally shaped heads or faces; a 9 percent increased risk of heart defects; a 27 percent higher risk of gastrointestinal abnormalities; a 20 percent higher risk of being born with a blocked or closed anus; and a 50 percent higher rate of being born with their intestines hanging outside the body.
If you smoke, quit immediately. Some supplements can make quitting easier; a recent study suggests supplemental omega-3 fatty acids can reduce nicotine cravings, and B-complex, chromium, and high doses of vitamin C can also ease cravings. Hypnosis and support groups can help. Call 800-QUIT-NOW for additional resources.
7. Take folate
One of the easiest ways to prevent serious birth defects: take folate supplements. Many studies have shown that a deficiency of folate, a type of B vitamin, increases the risk of neural tube defects (NTDs), a group of serious and sometimes fatal birth defects, including anencephaly and spina bifida, that affect the brain and spine. Some studies suggest 70 percent of NTDs could be prevented if all women of child-bearing age had adequate levels of folate.
If you’re pregnant, you should consume at least 800 mcg of folate daily; if you’re planning to become pregnant, you should start taking folate at least three months before you conceive. You’ll hear the terms “folate” and “folic acid” used interchangeably, but that’s not really accurate. Folate is the form found naturally in foods, while folic acid is synthesized.
Supplements for a healthy baby
In general, when you’re pregnant, it makes sense to be cautious with the use of herbs and supplements. But these four choices—in addition to folate and iodine, if necessary—are safe during pregnancy and can improve baby’s health, even before birth:
- Omega-3 fatty acids: critical for neurological and early visual development of the baby, and may also prevent preterm labor and delivery, lower the risk of preeclampsia, and increase birth weight.
- Probiotics: studies show they’re safe during pregnancy, and help babies culture their own beneficial gut bacteria when they pass through the birth canal. This initial “dose” of probiotics can help prevent ear and other infections, allergies, asthma, inflammatory bowel diseases, and other illnesses.
- Multivitamins: because developmental phases of pregnancy are so critical, nutrient deficiencies can have lasting consequences. Choose one that’s specially formulated for pregnancy and includes folate, as well as iron and iodine, if needed.
- Vitamin D: some studies suggest it may reduce the risk of gestational diabetes, and it’s also critical for fetal bone and hormone development.
Pregnancy supplements to help prevent birth defects
Folate 400 MCG
Perfect Prenatal Multivitamin