Reduce Your Baby's Risk For Birth Defects Before Getting Pregnant

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Mother with baby

The number of U.S. babies born addicted to opioids has quadrupled over the past decade. According to data first reported in The New England Journal of Medicine, because of our nation’s nation’s opioid epidemic, one drug-dependent baby is born every half hour, suffering devastating withdrawal symptoms.

While drug abuse is perhaps the most dramatic example of how a mother’s health prior to pregnancy can impact her child, there are many others factors that can contribute to birth defects. If you’re thinking of becoming a mom, there are important steps to take before you conceive to increase your chance of having a healthy baby.

See Your Primary Care Doctor or OB/GYN

Before you become pregnant, it’s a good idea to schedule a check-up with your family doctor, internist or OB/GYN. This is especially true if you have a chronic condition like diabetes, hypertension (high blood pressure), lupus, asthma, or seizures, as well as genetic disorders or conditions that run in your family. Your doctor can advise on actions you can take--like bringing blood sugars or blood pressures under control—to help assure a healthy pregnancy.

It is always best to make adjustments prior to becoming pregnant. Some changes, like stopping medications during pregnancy, could actually be harmful.

This is also a great time to make sure you are up to date on vaccinations and health screenings (mammogram, Pap test, blood pressure). It is also important to be tested for HIV. Many women avoid this test because they’re afraid of learning they have HIV. However, people with HIV now live fuller, healthier lives, especially when diagnosed and treated early. If your HIV test is positive, there are steps you can take to prevent passing HIV to your baby.

Stop Smoking and Using Recreational/Illicit Drugs

If you smoke or take drugs, this is the time to stop. Studies show these behaviors can lead to miscarriage, prematurity, low birth-weight babies, and drug-dependent newborns. In addition, tobacco use, and even second-hand smoke, can affect your fertility and lower your partner’s sperm count. Stopping unhealthy habits isn’t easy. Your healthcare provider can offer guidance and resources.

Limit Alcohol

Moderate drinking—no more than one drink per day for women—is considered safe when you’re trying to conceive, but avoid excessive alcohol consumption. And after you become pregnant, stop drinking entirely since the potential harmful effects on a developing baby are unclear.

Take a Multivitamin or Prenatal Vitamin

It’s advisable to start taking a multivitamin or prenatal vitamin containing folic acid (a minimum of 400 mcg), calcium, and iron at least one month before you conceive. For women who have had a baby with a neural tube defect (birth defect of the brain, spine or spinal cord), have a condition such as diabetes or seizure disorder, or take certain medications, it is recommended you take 4mg of folic acid.

Taking a folic acid supplement has been shown to reduce the risk of having a baby with spina bifida (one of the most common neural tube defects) by 50 to 70%, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Folic acid helps prevent some other birth defects as well.

If you follow a vegan, vegetarian, Paleo or special diet, ask your doctor whether you should also consider a nutritional supplement.

Eat a Balanced Diet

If you aren’t already eating a healthy diet, try to start making nutritious choices so your body has the needed iron and other nutrients for a healthy pregnancy. Focus on fruits, vegetables, whole grains, foods high in calcium, and protein from sources varied sources—beans, nuts, soy products, and meats.

Maintain A Healthy Weight

Try to get 30 minutes of moderate physical activity 3-4 times a week to help maintain a healthy weight. This could include walking, cycling, or weight training. To increase flexibility, try stretching or yoga. Having either a low or high body mass index (BMI) makes it harder for some women to conceive. And women with a high BMI are more likely to experience pregnancy and delivery complications, while women with low BMI can deliver underweight babies. Talk to your healthcare provider about how to best reach and maintain a healthy weight.

Develop Good Sleep Habits

Experts recommend you get eight hours of sleep per night if you’re trying to become pregnant. Adequate rest also helps relieve stress as you prepare for an exciting new chapter in your life.

While some birth defects are impossible to prevent, by taking the seven actions outlined above, you can increase your chance of having a healthy baby.

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Serena S. Wu, MD

Serena S. Wu, MD, is a maternal-fetal medicine specialist with LG Health Physicians Maternal-Fetal Medicine. Dr. Wu’s areas of expertise include fetal surveillance, integrative medicine, and prenatal diagnosis.
Education: Medical School—The Warren Alpert Medical School of Brown University; Internship, Residency, Fellowship—University of Chicago Hospital.

Call: 717-544-3514

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