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Top 5 tips to prevent birth defects

Written By: Simone Sonnier, UT Physicians | Updated: January 29, 2021
Pregnant woman, National Birth Defects Prevention Month

While not all birth defects can be prevented, these tips can put you on the right track for a healthy pregnancy.

January is National Birth Defects Prevention Month. Although some birth defects are unavoidable, there are actions soon-to-be mothers can take to increase the likelihood of a healthy pregnancy.

To raise awareness on this timely topic, Patricia C. Lenihan, MD, OB-GYN with UT Physicians, breaks down the top five birth defect prevention tips outlined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Achieve a healthy weight prior to conception

Having a healthy body mass index (BMI) before becoming pregnant can help with the development of a baby. Women with a BMI of 30 or above are at a higher risk of having a pregnancy affected by a birth defect.

Patricia C. Lenihan, MD
Patricia C. Lenihan, MD

“We do not know really why this is the case, but it appears to be related to how much or the type of nutrition a baby is able to receive from the mother,” said Lenihan, who is also an assistant professor in the Department of Obstetrics, Gynecology and Reproductive Sciences at McGovern Medical School at UTHealth.

Experts recommend nutritious eating, regular physical exercise, and consulting with a health care professional to achieve a healthy weight before pregnancy.

Take folic acid daily

Folic acid plays the important role of preventing birth defects in a baby’s brain and spine. Lenihan recommends that women who are planning to get pregnant take 400 micrograms of the supplement daily. However, some women may need a higher dose so it’s always best to consult your health care provider before starting the supplement.

Certain foods, like breads and breakfast cereals, can also be incorporated into your diet to boost your overall folic acid intake.

Talk with your doctor before starting or stopping medications

While there are medications that can be taken safely while pregnant, some are not recommended and may affect the development of crucial organ systems.

Alternatively, stopping certain medications while pregnant, like those for diabetes or hypertension, can cause significant problems as well.

Get up to date on all vaccines

Being fully vaccinated against all preventable diseases and up to date on all booster shots helps to protect a developing baby. Flu vaccines are included in this recommendation.

“Additionally, it is reasonable to have antibody titers drawn before pregnancy to ensure immunity against measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR), as well as varicella (chicken pox),” said Lenihan. “If a patient is not immune to those diseases based on the results, it would be important for her to receive those vaccines prior to becoming pregnant.”

In regards to the COVID-19 vaccine, Lenihan is a strong advocate for soon-to-be pregnant women to receive the vaccination as soon as it becomes available to them.

Avoid harmful substances

It’s common knowledge that drugs, alcohol, and tobacco can increase the chances of a birth defect. For the best outcome, all substance use should be stopped at least one month prior to conceiving.

Other helpful tips

Lenihan suggests all women who are considering having a baby to schedule a preconception visit with their doctor.

“I always recommend women have a preconception counseling and evaluation visit with their physician,” she said. “There are many topics that are important when it comes to planning for the healthiest possible pregnancy, and having that appointment is one of the best ways to prepare.”

Not all birth defects can be prevented, but early, proper, and comprehensive prenatal care can identify problems quickly and increase the chances for a healthy pregnancy and delivery.

For additional information on this topic, browse the CDC’s page birth defects.. To schedule an appointment with one of our women’s health experts, call 832-325-7131 or visit our Women’s Centers page.

As the clinical practice of McGovern Medical School at UTHealth Houston, UT Physicians has locations across the Greater Houston area to serve the community. To schedule an appointment, call 888-4UT-DOCS.