Birth defects are the leading cause of fatalities for infants during the first year of life. Niswonger Children’s Hospital is recognizing Birth Defects Prevention Month during January to promote awareness of the risk factors that, if not prevented, may cause birth defects and potentially lead to life-long disabilities.
Birth defects are caused from complications while a baby is developing during pregnancy. Once the baby is born, these complications can present as physical defects, mental disabilities and in some cases result in death.
There are two main types of birth defects, functional and structural, both of which cause some form of disability. Functional defects are those that deal with how systems in the body work and can cause disabilities such as blindness and degenerative diseases such as muscular dystrophy. Structural defects are problems with body parts. Structural defects may include missing or deformed limbs, heart defects or problems with the spinal cord.
Birth defects are caused from a variety of situations, for example, issues with chromosomes, such as having one extra, not having enough or missing a part of one. Defects can stem from problems with genes, such as having one or more genes that do not work or having a gene that is missing. These types of birth defects are typically not preventable, but can be detected with screenings during pregnancy. If a mother or father has a family history of chromosomal abnormalities, testing can be done before the couple decides to have a baby to determine if the baby would be at risk for a specific disorder.
Birth defects can also be caused by drinking, using drugs or from an illness during pregnancy. A woman who is trying to conceive or an expectant mother should discontinue the use of any substance that is not prescribed by a physician and approved for use during pregnancy. Some diseases can cause disruptions in the developing fetus, so it is important for expectant mothers to take precautions such as hand washing and limiting exposure to friends or family members who may be sick.
Prenatal care is the best way to promote normal development during a pregnancy. Prenatal appointments allow an obstetrician or family practitioner to identify and potentially treat complications that may develop during a pregnancy and treat the mother for any illnesses that may occur. Each pregnancy is different, so modifications to diet and exercise may need to be addressed, and the expectant mother may want to consider taking prenatal vitamins to ensure that her vitamin intake is adequate. Prenatal visits are the best time for an expectant mother to discuss with her practitioner ways that she can maintain a healthy lifestyle during her pregnancy.