January is National Birth Defects Prevention Month. Learn more at the National Birth Defects Prevention Network website.

The birth of a child is for many, a time of great celebration and joy. When a child is born with a birth defect, that joy may be tempered by concern about what that will mean for the child.

Birth defects occur in 2-3 births out of every hundred babies.

Most of these are not preventable – they happen because a gene didn’t function correctly at the specific time when its function was critical, or there was a change in the blood flow at a crucial moment. Much of the time, we don’t recognize the cause.

There are steps that can be taken that will help prevent some birth defects.

That was the original goal of the March of Dimes, and is the focus of National Birth Defects Prevention Month. Women can lower their chance of having a baby with birth defects by taking very specific precautions:

Don’t drink if you are planning a pregnancy or you become pregnant.

There is no known safe amount of alcohol that can be consumed during pregnancy. Exposing the developing baby to alcohol during pregnancy places the baby at risk for birth defects as well as behavior and learning problems that can last a lifetime. Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders (FASD) are 100 percent preventable if the woman does not drink while she is pregnant. Click here for more information about FASD.

Don’t smoke either before during or after a pregnancy.

Cigarette smoking has been linked to low birth weight as well as birth defects such as cleft lip and palate.

Eat a healthy diet paying attention to foods that are high in folic acid.

Increasing the folic acid in diets of pregnant women through vitamin supplements and fortified foods has decreased the incidence of spina bifida by 70 percent. Preventable birth defects increase in number when a woman’s diet lacks enough folic acid, or when she smokes or drinks alcohol.

Reduce your chances of infection .

Practice frequent hand washing, particularly after using the bathroom, or touching raw meat, uncooked eggs, or unwashed vegetables, or handling pets, gardening, or caring for young children.

Be up-to-date on your immunizations before becoming pregnant.

Some women may need to have a booster for German measles (Rubella) if they are not found to be immune because of the risk for birth defects if an infection occurs during the pregnancy. More information on vaccinations and pregnancy can be found at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website.

Learn more about Pediatric Genetics at the University of Vermont Children’s Hospital.

Leah W. Burke, MD, is the director of The University of Vermont Medical Center Clinical Genetics Program.

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