How to Prevent Birth Defects

Three Parts:Changing Your LifestylePreparing Your BodyMaintaining a Healthy Body

A birth defect is a complication that occurs to a baby during its development in the uterus. The majority of birth defects happen during the first trimester (3 months). A birth defect may bring about change in how the body appears, functions, or both. About 4% of babies born have natural birth defects that occur regardless of the conditions of the pregnancy.[1] However, defects can have a number of other causes, including infections, chemical exposure and drug and alcohol abuse.[2] There are steps you can take to prevent birth defects and increase the chances of bringing home a healthy and happy baby.

Part 1
Changing Your Lifestyle

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    Avoid alcohol. Do not drink any beer, wine, liquor or any other form of alcohol during conception or pregnancy. There is no safe amount of alcohol that you can drink during pregnancy, and when a woman drinks, the alcohol passes from her bloodstream into the fetus.
    • Prenatal exposure to alcohol can cause fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASDs). One of the most severe of these disorders is fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS). FAS is the major known preventable cause of intellectual disability in the United States.
    • Drinking during pregnancy can also lead to a miscarriage and stillbirth. [3][4]
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    Quit smoking. There is no safe amount of smoke that a pregnant woman and baby can be exposed to, so always avoid smoking cigarettes and secondhand smoke during conception and pregnancy.
    • Tobacco intake increases the risk of a premature birth, low birth weight, birth defects such as cleft lip or cleft palate, and death. Women who smoke while pregnant are more likely to have a miscarriage. They are more apt to have a baby born with a . Smoking has also been linked to Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS).[5]
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    Speak to your doctor about medications. Particular over-the-counter and prescription drugs, referred to as "teratogens," carry a high risk of causing birth defects. If you are taking medication, speak with your physician before conceiving.
    • Teratogenic drugs are most dangerous between the first and eighth week of pregnancy, a period when many women may not realize they are pregnant. Thus, it is very important to consult with your doctor if you are taking medication and wish to conceive.
    • There are a number of drugs that fall under the teratogenic category, including some antibiotics, lithium, thyroid and cancer medications, blood-thinners, acne medications, male hormones, anti-epileptic drugs, antidepressants and more. A helpful list and description of high-risk medications can be found here.[6][7][8]
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    Refuse or quit using illegal drugs. The consumption of drugs like cocaine, methamphetamine, and heroin can lead to serious complications during and after pregnancy. These and other illicit drugs should be avoided at all costs during conception and pregnancy.
    • Cocaine, heroin and other illegal drugs can cause premature birth, low birth weight, defects in the heart, and other complications for a newborn. In addition, a baby born to a mother who uses cocaine or heroin during pregnancy may enter the world addicted to these drugs and experience painful withdrawal symptoms.
    • The use of cocaine while pregnant can produce babies with defects of the limbs, intestines, kidneys, urinary system, and heart. It can also cause microcephaly, a condition that leads to the development of an abnormally small brain, can be caused by cocaine use. Cocaine also often causes placenta abruption, which can be fatal to both mother and fetus.
    • Heroin use can cause repertory problems, hypoglycemia, intracranial hemorrhaging (bleeding in the brain), and other defects. [9][10][11] Heroin and other opiates also cause a withdrawal syndrome in the neonate which is very hard to treat.
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    Avoid exposure to environmental toxins. There are many everyday solvents, insecticides, and toxic fumes that may cause birth defects, and you should avoid situations in which you may be exposed to such agents.
    • The list of potentially dangerous toxins is long, and exposure can occur in a number of different ways: refinishing furniture or painting, agricultural work, ingesting polluted water, living near a hazardous waste site, and so on.
    • The most common toxins a mother might come into contact with are pesticides (insecticides, herbicides, fungicides), solvents (gasoline, paint thinner, nail polish remover), and colorants (metallic dyes, furniture paint, fabric dye). For a longer list of harmful toxins, see here.
    • For a more thorough description of the potential harm caused by environmental toxins, and the situations in which exposure can occur, see here. [12]

Part 2
Preparing Your Body

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    Plan for your baby. Because the largest number of birth defects occur during the first 3 months of gestation, it is very important to know if you are pregnant. Indeed, it is recommended that you speak with your doctor before you become pregnant in order to discuss your family and medical history.
    • Planning for pregnancy with the advice of a doctor is particularly important for women who already have a child with a birth defect.
    • Planning your pregnancy allows you time to break bad habits like smoking and drinking, and to prepare your body for the big event.
    • You may also request a pre-pregnancy or early pregnancy screening test in order to spot potential or real birth defects. The types of tests include a carrier test to see if you or your partner carry potentially harmful genes, as well as screening and diagnostic tests that can determine risks for and detect genetic disorders. [13][14]
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    Take folic acid. This B vitamin is crucial to preventing neural tube defects in a baby’s brain and spine, including anencephaly and spina bifida, respectively. It is recommended that expectant women take at least 400 micrograms (mcg) of folic acid every day. You should begin taking folic acid a minimum of 3 months before you become pregnant.[15]
    • The safest approach is to make sure you are taking 400 mcg of folic acid daily before you become pregnant, and continue taking this amount at least through the first three months of the pregnancy.
    • Good sources of folic acid are cereal, spinach, beans, asparagus, oranges and peanuts. However, the easiest way to obtain the recommended amount of folic acid is by taking a multivitamin. Make sure to speak with your doctor about the use and benefits of folic acid. [16][17]
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    Change your diet. Particular foods may contain toxins dangerous to both you and your unborn child, including mercury, salmonella, listeria, shigella, and E. coli, and thus should be avoided before conception and during a pregnancy.
    • Avoid eating fish such as swordfish, shark, tilefish and king mackerel, as they may contain high levels of mercury, which can lead to hearing and vision problems, as well as brain damage.
    • Do not eat raw fish or shellfish during pregnancy. Avoid eating sushi and sashimi, oysters, clams and scallops.
    • Food poisoning can also be very dangerous to an unborn child. Make sure to fully cook poultry, meats and eggs, and avoid luncheon meats, hotdogs, and foods that contain raw or partially cooked eggs (hollandaise sauce, Caesar salad dressing, eggnog, and more).[18][19][20]
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    Lead a healthy lifestyle. The healthier your body is, the lower the chances are that your newborn will have a birth defect. It is thus important to eat a balanced diet, engage in regular exercise, and control your bodyweight.
    • A balanced diet will include the following: 5 portions of fruits and vegetables a day; 2-3 portions of (low-fat) dairy products a day; protein-rich foods every day; and 2 portions of fish a week. Be careful to check each food for potentially high levels of mercury or other toxins. For more information on maintaining a healthy diet during pregnancy see here.
    • Speak with your doctor before beginning or continuing an exercise regime, particularly if you have any medical conditions (heart disease, high blood pressure, etc.) that may pose a risk to you and your baby.
    • 30 minutes of low-impact exercise each day is recommended for pregnant women. Healthy activities include riding a stationary bike, swimming, low-impact aerobics and, particularly, walking. Be careful to stay hydrated and avoid overheating.
    • Obesity increases the chances a newborn will have birth defects, including heart complications and spina bifida. Thus, it is important to maintain a healthy lifestyle and keep your weight under control before a pregnancy. An ideal body mass index (BMI) is between 20 and 25, while a BMI of 30 or higher is considered obese.[21][22]

Part 3
Maintaining a Healthy Body

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    Get chronic conditions under control. If you have a physical condition that may put added strain on your body during pregnancy, or create a risk for your baby, speak with a doctor about ways you can get it under control.
    • Uncontrolled Type 1 or Type 2 diabetes put women at greater risk of miscarriage, and can cause several different birth defects in a newborn’s brain, spine, heart, kidneys, and other areas of the body.[23]
    • Gestational diabetes can affect all women, but women who are over the age of 25, obese, have a family history of diabetes, or are of a non-caucasian background have a higher risk of developing gestational diabetes. This can cause excessive birth weight, preterm birth, low blood sugar and potentially type 2 diabetes in your baby.[24]
    • Pay particular attention to epilepsy, obesity, and high blood pressure when you are planning a pregnancy, and speak to your physician about the risks these conditions pose to a pregnancy.[25]
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    Take precautions against infection. Particular infections can cause birth defects, and thus you should carefully avoid situations that may cause infections, and make sure your vaccinations are up to date.
    • Rubella (German measles) is a particularly dangerous cause of birth defects in children. Make sure to speak with your doctor before you become pregnant in order to have your blood tested for immunity against this infection.
    • Toxoplasmosis can cause hearing and vision problems, as well as intellectual disabilities. The parasite spreads through the eating of unwashed vegetables and raw or undercooked meat, as well as through contact with animal (particularly cat) feces. Make sure to wash and cook vegetables and meat, use gloves when gardening, and (if you can) avoid emptying litter boxes.
    • Cytomegalovirus can cause hearing and vision problems, as well as intellectual disabilities, and spreads through children's urine and other bodily fluids. If you are around children on a regular basis, it is recommended that you use gloves when changing diapers and wash your hands regularly.[26][27]
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    Visit your doctor on a regular basis. Consulting your physician before and during your pregnancy is crucial to preventing birth defects in your baby. Visit your physician before you become pregnant to discuss your family and medical history, and begin prenatal care as soon as you know that you are pregnant.[28]


  • Steam rooms, saunas, and hot tubs should be avoided. Too much high heat can be harmful during your pregnancy.
  • Caffeine should be limited. Caffeine can be found in coffee, tea, soft drinks and chocolate. Read the labels when cutting down on caffeine. You may be surprised to know that there are in excess of 200 foods, drinks, and over-the-counter medications that include caffeine.
  • Avoid any contact with rodents! This includes pet guinea pigs and hamsters. Never touch nesting materials as these are contaminated by urine and droppings. Call in a professional pest control company to remove any mice or rats that may have infested your home. If you have pet rodents, they should be kept in a separate part of the home. Allow other family members to clean the cages and feed the animals.
  • Toxoplasmosis is a parasitic disease that can seriously harm an unborn baby. Take special precautions to avoid eating undercooked meat and never handle cat litter. Always wear gloves when gardening.
  • If you require dental work or diagnostic tests during your pregnancy, tell your dentist or physician that you are pregnant. Extra care will be needed if they are going to take X rays.
  • If there have been issues with pregnancies or birth defects in your family history, advise your doctor of these facts. Genetic counselors can enlighten you with information you may need in your decision to start a family.
  • Being obese or underweight during your pregnancy can cause issues. If possible, get within 15 pounds of your ideal weight before becoming pregnant. Once you become pregnant, don't skip meals or avoid eating as your weight increases. The calories and nutrition you receive from a healthy diet during gestation are needed by you and your baby.
  • Let your physician know if you experience any of the following:

    • pain of any kind
    • extreme cramping
    • trouble walking
    • shortness of breath
    • edema (swelling of joints)
    • vaginal bleeding
    • dizziness
    • fainting spells
    • decreased activity of the baby
    • uterine contractions
    • amniotic fluid leakage
    • palpitations (violent beating of the heart)
    • tachycardia (rapid beating of the heart)
    • persistent nausea and/or vomiting
  • Being nauseated, having a stomach upset and morning sickness are common for a mother-to-be. Oftentimes, a food you normally love can make you queasy. When this happens you can substitute it with a healthy, beneficial food. Instead of eating three large meals, try eating 5 or 6 smaller meals a day.


  • Do not use illegal drugs if you are pregnant.
  • Avoid exposure to toxic substances, particularly solvents, mercury and lead, insecticides, and paint/paint fumes.
  • Do not drink alcohol during your pregnancy.

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Categories: Reproductive Health