January is Birth Defects Prevention Month, and the theme this year is Best for You, Best for Baby. Birth defects are something I think about on a regular basis just because of the nature of my job. But this year, it has taken a particularly personal spin. One of my dearest friends had a baby last July and we were very concerned about birth defects with that little person. Fortunately, while she was premature, beyond the issues that can cause, she is a perfectly healthy little girl. I am expecting a grandchild in April and we have some concerns in that regard with that little person as well. Birth defects cannot always be prevented, but there are many things that women can do before and during their pregnancy to significantly decrease the risk of birth defects in their infants.
The National Birth Defects Prevention Network recommends that mothers make a P.A.C.T. for prevention of birth defects. P.A.C.T. stands for Plan ahead: Get as healthy as you can before you become pregnant and take 400 micrograms of folic acid every day as soon as you consider becoming pregnant. Avoid harmful substances: Avoid alcohol and smoking. Be careful with harmful exposures at work and at home, this can be things like chemicals which most people think about when they think about harmful substances, but it can also include things like pet waste, or undercooked meat, fish, and eggs. Choose a healthy lifestyle: Eat a healthy diet that includes fruit, vegetables, whole grains, low-fat diary, and lean proteins. Be physically active, discuss vigorous exercise with your healthcare provider. If you have chronic health conditions like diabetes, work with your healthcare provider to keep those under control. Talk to your healthcare provider: Get a medical checkup. Discuss all medications prescription, non-prescription, vitamins, and herbal supplements with your healthcare provider. Talk about family medical history with your healthcare provider as well.
Getting enough folic acid is especially important when you are thinking about getting pregnant. The March of Dimes recommends that women of childbearing age receive at least 400 micrograms of folic acid every day even if you aren’t trying to get pregnant because in the United States, 70% of all pregnancies are unplanned. Folic acid is particularly important in the prevention of neural tube defects. Neural tubes in developing babies are the very early forms of the brain and spine. Folic acid for women of childbearing age is so important because the neural tubes form in the first month of pregnancy, which is before most women even know they are pregnant. Folic acid can also help prevent cleft lip and palate as well. Cleft lip and palate is a birth defect where the roof of a babies mouth, their upper gums, and or their upper lip has an opening in it because those structures didn’t form correctly.
Folic acid can be obtained in many ways. Taking folic acid supplements either separately or in a multivitamin, eating a diet rich in fruits and vegetables, eating foods fortified with folic acid (read the nutrition labels on foods) or a combination of diet and vitamin supplementation. The March of Dimes recommends 400 micrograms a day for all women of childbearing age, and once you know you are pregnant, increasing that to 600 micrograms per day. If you are at risk for having a baby with neural tube defects, the March of Dimes recommends the dose of folic acid be greatly increased in you are considering becoming pregnant. People at risk for having a baby with a neural tube defect are those that have already had a child with a neural tube defect, if either parent has a neural tube defect, or has a child with a different partner with a neural tube defect. The March of Dimes says that high dose of folic acid for people at risk drops their risk of having a baby with a neural tube defect by as much as 70%. If you do need to take that much folic acid, speak to your doctor about the best way to safely supplement with folic acid. Do not take several multivitamins, that can give you too much of other nutrients which can also harm your health or that of your baby.
Remember the things that are Best for you, are also going to best for your baby when it comes to birth defects. Have a relationship with a doctor, exercise, eat a diet that is rich in healthy foods, make sure you are getting the right nutrients (especially folic acid), keep chronic medical conditions under control, and stay away from harmful substances. Those things keep you healthy, and they will help keep your developing baby healthy too.