By Dr Ilse Lategan (MBBCh, DCH) – Paediatric General Practitioner
World Birth Defects Day is observed on the 3rd of March each year to raise awareness around Birth Defects also known as Congenital Disorders or Anomalies. The March of Dimes Global Report estimates that 7.9 million children are born each year with a birth defect.
Many birth defects are genetic in origin and occur during conception, but they can occur during pregnancy when a mother is exposed to harmful environmental agents. Over 7000 different birth defects have already been identified, but the following five serious birth defects are the most common and account for 25% of all birth defects of genetic origin:
Congenital Heart Defects
Neural Tube Defects which affect the developing brain and spine
Haemoglobin disorders such as Sickle Cell Disease and Thalassaemia
Trisomy 21 also known as Down Syndrome
The most common post-conception birth defects include Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, Iodine Deficiency Disorder, Congenital Rubella and Congenital Syphilis.
Although not all birth defects are preventable, research has shown that a significant number of birth defects can be prevented with improved maternal education and preconception care. The theme for WBDD 2020 is “Best for You, Best for Baby”. This simply means that you improve your chances of having a healthy, full-term baby by looking after yourself as best you can during pre-conception and pregnancy.
The following 5 tips can help you achieve optimum health for you and your baby:
Tip 1 Take 400 micrograms (mcg) of Folic Acid every day
Start taking a folic acid supplement at least one month before you fall pregnant and continue to drink it throughout your pregnancy. The Neural tube which gives rise to the brain and spinal cord forms within the first month of pregnancy and folic Acid has been proven to prevent neural tube defects (NTD) such as Spina Bifida and Anencephaly. In addition to your daily supplement, aim to increase your intake of foods naturally high in folates such as leafy greens, citrus fruits and beans.
Tip 2 Schedule a preconception checkup
This is an opportunity to discuss any pre-existing medical conditions you may have as well as which prescription or over-the-counter medications you may be taking. Your healthcare provider will be able to guide you and create a treatment plan to improve your pregnancy outcomes.
Tip 3 Ensure you are up to date with all vaccinations
Pregnant women are at an increased risk of developing severe illness to Influenza virus. Although the Influenza virus does not cause birth defects, a severely sick mom has a higher likelihood of pregnancy complications. For this reason, all pregnant mothers should receive the annual Flu vaccine when it becomes available around March.
Tip 4 Reach and maintain a healthy weight before pregnancy
Obesity increases the chances of infertility, birth defects and pregnancy complications. Aim to eat a healthy, balanced diet and try to get 30 minutes of good cardiovascular exercise 5 times per week. Schedule an appointment with your dietician if you struggle with your weight and need assistance with meal plans.
Tip 5 Avoid harmful substances during pregnancy
Smoking cigarettes during pregnancy can cause birth defects like cleft lip and palate and is associated with growth restriction and babies born small for gestational age. No amount of marijuana or E-cigarette use has been proven safe to use during pregnancy. Fetal Alcohol Syndrome is caused by alcohol consumption during pregnancy and no amount of alcohol has been proven safe to use during pregnancy. Opioid use is associated with premature birth and Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome. Speak to your healthcare provider if you need help to quit.
Birth defects are common, costly and critical. By looking after yourself during the preconception period as well as throughout your pregnancy, you improve your chances of having a healthy, full-term baby. Remember, what is best for you is best for your baby.
1.March of Dimes – Global Report of Birth Defects; The hidden toll of dying and disabled children
2.Centre for Disease Control – https://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/birthdefects/prevention-month.html
3.March of Dimes – https://www.marchofdimes.org/complications/january-is-national-birth-defects-prevention-month.aspx#
4.National Birth Defects Prevention Network – https://www.nbdpn.org/bdpm.php