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January is National Birth Defects Prevention Month. Join the nationwide effort to raise awareness of birth defects, their causes, and their impact!

Not all birth defects can be prevented. But women can increase their chances of having a healthy baby by managing health conditions and by adopting healthy behaviours before and during pregnancy. Taking care of herself and doing what’s best for her is also best for her baby!

Causes of birth defects

Birth defects can be structural or functional abnormalities present at birth that cause physical or mental disability. They are the leading cause of death for infants during the first year of life. Birth defects may be caused by genetic problems, problems with chromosomes, or environmental factors.

Structural birth defects are related to a problem with body parts such as cleft lip or cleft palate, heart defects such as missing or misshaped valves, abnormal limbs such as a club foot, and neural tube defects such as spina bifida (Cunha: 2016).

The different types of birth defects?

There are two main types of birth defects: structural and functional/developmental. Structural birth defects are related to a problem with body parts. Examples of these are physical problems e.g. cleft lip or cleft palate, heart defects, such as missing or misshaped valves, and abnormal limbs, such as a club foot. They also include neural tube defects, such as spina bifida, problems that are related to the growth and development of the brain and spinal cord.

Functional birth defects are related to a problem with how a body part or body system works. These problems often lead to developmental disabilities and can include things such as:

Nervous system or brain problems – such as learning disabilities, mental retardation, behavioral disorders, speech or language difficulties, convulsions, and movement trouble. Some examples of birth defects that affect the nervous system include Autism, Down syndrome, Prader-Willi syndrome, and Fragile X syndrome.

Sensory problems – such as blindness, cataracts and other visual problems, and varying degrees of hearing loss including deafness

Metabolic disorders – involve a body process or chemical pathway or reaction, such as conditions that limit the body’s ability to get rid of waste materials or harmful chemicals. Two common metabolic disorders are phenylketonuria (PKU) and hypothyroidism.

Degenerative disorders–are conditions that might not be obvious at birth, but cause one or more aspects of health to steadily get worse. For example, X-linked adrenoleukodystrophy (X-ALD), which was the focus of the movie Lorenzo’s Oil, Rett syndrome, muscular dystrophy, and lysosomal disorders are examples of degenerative disorders.

In some cases, birth defects are caused by a combination of factors. Some recognized patterns of birth defects affect many parts or processes in the body, leading to both structural and functional problems.

Can birth defects be prevented?

Not all birth defects can be prevented. But there are things you can do before and during pregnancy to increase your chance of having a healthy baby:

  • Start prenatal care as soon as you think you might be pregnant, and see your health care provider regularly during pregnancy
  • Get 400 micrograms (mcg) of folic acid every day. If possible, you should start taking it at least one month before you get pregnant.
  • Don’t drink alcohol, smoke, or use “street” drugs
  • Talk to your health care provider about any medicines you are taking or thinking about taking. This includes prescription and over-the-counter medicines, as well as dietary or herbal supplements.
  • Learn how to prevent infections during pregnancy
  • If you have any medical conditions, try to get them under control before you get pregnant

(Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’ https://medlineplus.gov.birthdefects.html). Accessed 20220/01/20