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Your Healthy Family: Steps to prevent birth defects

Posted at 8:43 AM, Feb 03, 2023
and last updated 2023-02-03 08:43:37-05

About one in 33 babies is born with a birth defect every year in our country. But there are steps pregnant women can take to reduce the risk.

Thirteen years ago, when Amy DeSantis gave birth to her twins, she had no idea one of them had Down Syndrome, and with that, a birth defect. He was born with a heart issue.

"It's overwhelming. There's a lot of fear. A lot of fear. Fear of the unknown. A fear of what the future will look like. Will this child have a future," she said.

Some birth defects are preventable. Others are not. But experts say early intervention is critical.

The nonprofit March of Dimes says most birth defects happen within the first trimester, but can also happen later in pregnancy.

"A lot of women have no idea what their risk is or anything about birth defects," Dr. Elizabeth Cherot, the Chief Medical & Health Officer for March of Dimes, said.

She said taking 400 micrograms of folic acid before and during early pregnancy can help lower the risk of birth defects. She also said it's important to see a healthcare provider at the beginning of a pregnancy, so medications and medical history can be reviewed. Avoiding drugs, smoking and alcohol while pregnant are also key.

"The number one cause of preventable birth defects is alcohol, and researchers did a study that showed almost one in seven pregnant people is drinking alcohol today," Dr. Cherot said.

Birth defects are a leading cause of infant death in the U.S. But many of these babies go on to live happy, healthy lives, like DeSantis's son. Her twins just turned 13, and despite the challenges of his heart defect, he's thriving.

"He does everything his sister does and then some, so he's living a wonderful life and he's a happy, happy guy," she said.

The March of Dimes says the exact cause of most birth defects isn't known, but having certain health conditions, like diabetes, and taking certain medicines before or during pregnancy, can increase your risk. It also says if you're age 34 or older, you may have increased risk.