According to the CDC, birth defects affect 1 in 33 babies in the US every year, and 18 babies die each day as a result of a birth defect. Some are caused by genetic factors such as Down syndrome or sickle cell anemia. Others are caused by certain chemicals or drugs, including alcohol and tobacco. Unfortunately, however, the cause of many birth defects is not yet known.
While not all birth defects are preventable, ob-gyns know the importance of becoming as healthy as possible before pregnancy. Most birth defects occur during the first trimester, a time when some women may not know that they are pregnant. In addition, the CDC estimates half of all US pregnancies are unplanned. This makes it critical for ob-gyns to encourage good health in all our patients of reproductive age.
How can women best care for themselves so they’ll be prepared for pregnancy?
- Avoid alcohol, tobacco, and illegal drug use
- Maintain a healthy weight
- Limit exposure to toxic agents such as mercury and lead
- Take a daily multivitamin including 400 micrograms of folic acid and no more than 5,000 international units of vitamin A
Most importantly, women considering becoming pregnant should visit their ob-gyn for a preconception care check-up. These check-ups allow ob-gyns to discuss the patient’s risk factors for birth defects and how to best manage them, including family history, preexisting medical conditions, and current prescriptions or other medicines. It is also an opportunity to discuss ways to reduce the risk of infection during pregnancy, including immunizations.
ACOG’s patient FAQs “Good Health Before Pregnancy: Preconception Care” and “Reducing Risks of Birth Defects” are great resources to share with your patients. This month, help spread the word about the importance of preconception care for preventing birth defects.