Guidance for Preventing Birth Defects
Not all birth defects can be prevented. But a woman can increase her own chances of having a healthy baby by managing health conditions and adopting healthy behaviors before becoming pregnant. This is important because many birth defects happen very early during pregnancy, sometimes before a woman even knows she is pregnant. Read below for some steps a woman can take to get ready for a healthy pregnancy.
- Get 400 micrograms (mcg) of folic acid every day.
Folic acid is a B vitamin. If a woman has enough folic acid in her body at least one month before and during pregnancy, it can help prevent major birth defects of the baby’s brain and spine (anencephaly and spina bifida). Women can get folic acid from fortified foods or supplements, or a combination of the two, in addition to a varied diet rich in folate.
Learn more about folic acid »
- Avoid alcohol at any time during pregnancy.
When a pregnant woman drinks alcohol, so does her baby. Alcohol that’s in the woman’s blood passes to the baby through the umbilical cord. There is no known safe amount of alcohol use during pregnancy or while trying to get pregnant. There is also no safe time during pregnancy to drink. All types of alcohol are equally harmful, including all wines and beer. Drinking alcohol during pregnancy can cause miscarriage, stillbirth, and a range of lifelong physical, behavioral, and intellectual disabilities. These disabilities are known as fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASDs). The best advice is to stop drinking alcohol when you start trying to get pregnant.
Learn more about alcohol and pregnancy »
- Avoid smoking cigarettes or using “street” drugs.
The dangers of smoking during pregnancy include premature birth, certain birth defects (cleft lip or cleft palate), and infant death. Even being around tobacco smoke puts a woman and her unborn baby at risk for problems. A woman who uses illegal—or “street”—drugs during pregnancy can have a baby who is born premature; is low birth weight; or has other health problems, such as birth defects.
Quitting smoking before getting pregnant is best. For a woman who is already pregnant, quitting as early as possible can still help protect against some health problems for the baby, such as low birth weight.
It’s never too late to quit smoking.
Learn more about smoking during pregnancy »
- Prevent infections.
Some infections that a woman can get during pregnancy can be harmful to the unborn baby and can even cause birth defects. Some easy steps to prevent infections include washing her hands, cooking meat until its well done, and staying away from people who have an infection. Learn how to help prevent infections.
Learn simple steps to prevent infections »
- Talk to a health care provider about taking any medications.
We know certain medications can cause serious birth defects if they are taken during pregnancy. But for many medications taken by pregnant women, the safety has been difficult to determine. If a woman is pregnant or planning a pregnancy, she should not stop taking medications she needs or begin taking new medications without first talking with her doctor. This includes prescription and over-the-counter medications and dietary or herbal products.
Learn more about medication and pregnancy »
- Talk to your doctor about vaccinations (shots).
Most vaccinations are safe and recommended during pregnancy. Some vaccines protect women against infections that can cause birth defects. Having the right vaccinations at the right time can help keep a woman and her baby healthy. She should talk to her doctor about which vaccines are recommended for her during pregnancy.
Learn about vaccinations during pregnancy »
Pregnant women are more prone to severe illness from the flu, including hospitalizations and even death, than women who are not pregnant. Pregnant woman with flu also have a greater chance for serious problems for their unborn baby, including premature birth. Getting a flu shot is the first and most important step in protecting against flu. The flu shot given during pregnancy has been shown to protect both the mother and her baby (up to 6 months old) from flu.
Learn more about flu and pregnancy »
- Reach and maintain a healthy weight.
A woman who is obese (a body mass index of 30 or higher) before pregnancy is at a higher risk for complications during pregnancy. Obesity also increases a pregnant woman’s risk of several serious birth defects for her baby.
If a woman is overweight or obese, she should talk with her doctor about ways to reach a healthy weight before she gets pregnant.
Learn more about healthy weight »
- Keep diabetes under control.
Poor control of diabetes during pregnancy increases the chances for birth defects and other problems for the baby. It can also cause serious complications for the woman. Proper healthcare before and during pregnancy can help prevent birth defects and other poor outcomes.
Learn more about diabetes and pregnancy »
- See a health care professional regularly.
A woman should be sure to see her doctor when planning a pregnancy and start prenatal care as soon as she thinks that she is pregnant. It is important to see the doctor regularly throughout pregnancy, so a woman should keep all her prenatal care appointments.
Pregnancy is an exciting time, but it also can be stressful. Knowing that you are doing all that you can to get ready for pregnancy, staying healthy during pregnancy, and giving your baby a healthy start in life will help you to have peace of mind.
- Page last reviewed: November 24, 2014
- Page last updated: November 24, 2014
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