Growing a Healthy Baby

It’s a cringeworthy subject for expectant and new mothers, but the more that is known about birth defects, their causes and the impact in their populations, the better chance of preventing them. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), birth defects are more common than we might think, affecting nearly 120,000 babies in the U.S. each year- or 1 in 33 babies born with one of 45 types of defects. Of the approximate 62,000 babies born each year in Louisiana, at least 1,800 are born with a birth defect.

While not all birth defects can be prevented, women can increase their chances of having a healthy baby by following these guidelines before and during pregnancy.

Commit to Healthy Choices
-Taking Folic Acid (a B vitamin that helps make new cells), lowers the risk of having a baby with serious birth defects of the brain and spine. For this reason, it is highly recommended that pregnant women take 400 micrograms of folic acid every day, one month before getting pregnant and during early pregnancy.

– Pregnant women should not drink alcohol (including while breastfeeding) as it can cause the baby to develop fetal alcohol spectrum disorders.

-Women who smoke should quit before getting pregnant or as early as possible after discovering they are pregnant. Smoking in the month before getting pregnant and throughout pregnancy increases the chance of premature birth, certain birth defects (such as cleft lip, cleft palate or both), and, in some cases, infant death.
-Obesity during pregnancy leads to a higher risk of having a baby with serious birth defects of the brain and spine (neural tube defects), some heart deformities and other birth defects.

– Pregnant diabetics should keep their blood sugar well-controlled before and during pregnancy to avoid serious pregnancy complications and the chance for birth defects.

– Certain medications are known to cause birth defects if taken during pregnancy. Women who are pregnant or who might become pregnant should discuss all medications (current, new, over-the-counter and herbal supplements) with their health care providers.

– Using illegal drugs, like marijuana, during pregnancy can increase the risk of various birth defects, including intellectual and development disabilities, behavioral problems, as well as pregnancy loss and stillbirth

-Choose nourishing foods, exercise and manage stress to build a healthy body before and throughout your pregnancy.

-If you are pregnant or planning to be, talk with your healthcare provider about getting up to date on all your vaccines. The CDC recommends three vaccines during pregnancy: the flu, the DTaP (against whooping cough,) and the COVID-19 vaccines.

Infections to Watch Out For
Exposure to certain infections before and during pregnancy can cause not only serious illnesses but birth defects and lifelong disabilities. Along with the CDC, the National Birth Defects Prevention Network gives the following advice:

-Getting COVID-19 during pregnancy is serious. Among the list of “Underlying Medical Conditions Associated with Higher Risk for Severe COVID-19” is pregnancy or recent pregnancy. Although the overall risks are low, people who are pregnant or recently pregnant are at an increased risk for severe illness from COVID-19 when compared to people who are not pregnant. According to the CDC, women who have COVID-19 during pregnancy are also at increased risk for premature birth, stillbirth and possibly other pregnancy complications compared to those without COVID-19 during pregnancy.

-Limit contact with saliva and urine from babies and young children by not sharing food and utensils with them and washing hands after changing diapers. This can lessen the chance of getting a common virus called cytomegalovirus that can be passed on to developing babies during pregnancy and cause problems, including hearing loss.

– Avoid unpasteurized (raw) milk and foods made from it including soft cheeses such as feta, brie and queso fresco, unless they have labels that say they are pasteurized. Unpasteurized products can contain harmful bacteria.

– Do not touch or change dirty cat litter. If you must change the cat litter yourself, be sure to wear gloves and wash your hands afterwards. Dirty cat litter might contain a harmful parasite.

– Stay away from wild or pet rodents and their droppings. Have a pest control professional get rid of pests in or around your home. If you have a pet hamster or guinea pig, have someone else care for it until after the baby arrives. Some rodents might carry a harmful virus.

– If there is a chance you have a sexually transmitted disease, such as HIV and hepatitis B, get tested to protect your baby from getting sick.

– Avoid people who have an infection like chickenpox or rubella.

One more thing – and maybe the most important thing. Birth defects have a negative connotation, but they don’t necessarily mean a child can’t lead a normal life. Many children living with birth defects can do what other children do; it just may be in a different way or take a little longer. On the other hand, using the term “birth defect” can help parents access the right types of care and resources, and find other families with similar challenges.

The Louisiana Birth Defects Monitoring Network tracks birth defects in 37 parishes. It also provides information on locally available medical, educational and social services to families whose children are included in the birth defects registry.