All women of childbearing age should take folic acid supplements at least three months before becoming pregnant. Insufficient levels of folate have been implicated as the cause of one common class of birth defects, neural tube defects (the most common of these being spina bifida). These defects occur very early in the pregnancy, well before the woman's first prenatal appointment, which is generally scheduled at 10 weeks.
There's a growing movement to make the preconception doctor visit standard for every woman of childbearing age. Dr. John R. Sussman, an OB-GYN and author of
The Unofficial Guide to Having a Baby, says his primary interest in encouraging pre-pregnancy visits is so pre-pregnancy care can be individualized for each woman. This is particularly important for women with chronic health conditions.
One entirely avoidable birth defect is fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS). Damage from alcohol can range from mild intellectual and behavioral issues to profound disabilities or premature death. According to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG), there is no safe level of alcohol consumption during pregnancy.
According to the March of Dimes, if all pregnant women avoided smoking, the US would see a 5 percent reduction in miscarriages, a 20 percent reduction in low birth weight births, an 8 percent reduction in premature deliveries, an 11 percent reduction in stillbirths, and a 5 percent reduction in newborn deaths.
Chemicals have long been suspected of causing birth defects. Avoid daily, heavy exposure to chemicals. If you work in a cleaning business, art studio, or factory where there is unavoidable exposure, use gloves, masks, and adequate ventilation. Avoid exposure to lead, important when buying and restoring old furniture or renovating an older home. Those who work in the medical field should take special care to take precautions against radiation.
Good nutrition is one of the most crucial factors in a healthy pregnancy outcome, says Elizabeth Somer, author of Nutrition for a Healthy Pregnancy. Somer says she hates to isolate one particular nutrient, rather, she encourages women to focus on eating a variety of healthy foods, with an emphasis on richly colored produce, whole grains, beans and legumes, and lean protein sources. She also recommends taking a supplement fortified with DHA.
While the human papillomavirus (HPV) has not been linked to birth defects, it has been linked to an increased risk of preterm labor, which can result in serious brain and lung impairment in children. It's estimated that at least 50 percent of sexually active men and women acquire genital HPV infection at some point in their lives.
It goes without saying that illegal drugs are always bad. However, many prescription drugs are not safe to take during pregnancy. Always consult with your OB-GYN so he or she can do a thorough review of any prescription medicine you may be taking, especially for chronic conditions, to determine if they're safe in pregnancy.
The cause of most birth defects isn't known, but couples with a history of birth defects in their family may benefit from genetic screening to analyze their risk. Michele Clemens, a genetic counselor at Magee Women's Hospital in Oakland, Pennsylvania, says a typical session includes a review of the family history and performing a few tests to rule out specific diseases. This is an excellent tool for helping a couple make informed decisions.
Research shows that women exposed to severe stress are more likely to give birth to children with birth defects. Stress has also been linked to a higher risk of miscarriage, preterm birth, and infertility. Dr. Alice Domar, director of the Mind/Body center for Women's Health at Boston IVF, says there are a number of ways to manage stress, from counseling to yoga.