Mercy Doc: Plan Ahead to Reduce Risk of Birth Defects

January 29, 2016

One in 33 babies has a birth defect, a statistic many women learn about well after they're pregnant. As National Birth Defects Prevention Awareness Month (January) comes to a close, a Mercy doctor hopes to open some eyes.

“Most birth defects are unexplained,” said Dr. Rick Fraser at Mercy Clinic Maternal and Fetal Medicine. “However, we can identify some causes, such as predisposed genetic conditions, family history, or a maternal illness like diabetes. In some other cases, it’s exposure to an infection or mother’s medication. Many times we know about the birth defect by the 20-week ultrasound.”

Dr. Fraser said the most effective way to avoid a birth defect is consult with your doctor well before considering having a child. “A pre-conception visit helps us find out if there’s something in the mother’s history that could pose a risk to the baby. Screening and a good relationship with your doctor is crucial.”

But many pregnancies are unplanned, so daily consumption of B vitamin folic acid as early as possible - and at least one month before conception - is extremely important to thwart potential birth defects. Leading health experts recommend women take prenatal vitamins with a minimum of 400 micrograms (mcg) a day.

“It’s been shown to reduce the risk of Spina Bifida (a spinal birth defect) by about 50 percent in low-risk women,” Dr. Fraser said. “For high-risk mothers, it’s recommended they start even earlier, at three months before conceiving and take higher doses of folic acid. The timing is key. Unfortunately, many mothers wait several weeks into a pregnancy to take vitamins, but the birth defect Spina Bifida is formed in the baby’s first four weeks.”

In addition to Spina Bifida, other common birth defects include cleft lip/palate, congenital heart defects, or upper and lower limb abnormalities.

Click here for additional resources from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Birth Defect Awareness Month, or click here for tips from the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists.

On social media, follow #LivingMyPACT (PACT stands for Plan ahead, Avoid harmful substances, Choose a healthy lifestyle, and Talk with your healthcare provider).

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