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Birth Defects are Common

Birth defects affect 1 in every 33 babies born in the United States each year. That translates into nearly 120,000 U.S. babies affected by birth defects. These conditions are a leading cause of death in the first year of life, causing 1 in every 5 infant deaths. Babies who survive and live with birth defects can have lifelong challenges, such as problems with physical movement, learning, and social interaction.

What are the most common birth defects?

As a group, heart defects are the most common birth defects. They occur in about 1 in every 100 births in the United States each year. Down syndrome is also a common condition. Each year, about 6,000 babies born in the United States have Down syndrome. This means that Down syndrome occurs in about 1 in every 700 babies. Also, about 7,000 U.S. babies each year, or about 1 in every 600 babies, are born with a cleft palate, cleft lip or both.

Infographic 1 in 33 babies is born with a major birth defect in the US.

What are some ways to help prevent birth defects?

We know that not all birth defects can be prevented. But a woman can increase her chances of having a healthy pregnancy 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.
Here are some steps to get ready for a healthy pregnancy:

  • Get 400 micrograms (mcg) of the B vitamin, folic acid every day before and during pregnancy.
  • Don't drink alcohol at any time during pregnancy.
  • Don’t smoke.
  • Talk to a healthcare provider about taking any medicine, both prescription and over-the-counter.
  • Keep health conditions like diabetes under control.
  • Eat a healthy diet and work to reach and maintain a healthy weight.
  • See a healthcare professional regularly.

Increasing awareness of these steps offers hope for reducing the number of birth defects in the United States. 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 will help you to have peace of mind.

What is CDC doing?

CDC works to identify causes of birth defects, find opportunities to prevent them, and improve the health of those living with birth defects.

  • Tracking: Accurately tracking birth defects is the first step in prevention. CDC funds 14 states to track major birth defects using population-based methods. State systems use the data from population-based tracking to help direct birth defects prevention activities and refer children affected by birth defects to needed services. In addition, 16 of the 24 grantees funded by CDC’s National Environmental Public Health Tracking Network also report birth defects data. These data are used to better understand the relationship between birth defects and environmental factors.
  • Research: CDC funds the Centers for Birth Defects Research and Prevention, which collaborate on large studies such as the National Birth Defects Prevention Study (births 1997-2011) and the Birth Defects Study To Evaluate Pregnancy exposures, also called BD-STEPS, (to start in 2014). These studies work to identify what might raise or lower the risk of having a baby with a birth defect. Other CDC research focuses on health services use and costs associated with birth defects, which are important considerations in helping children with birth defects reach their full potential.
  • Prevention: CDC and its partners can use what they learn through research to prevent birth defects.
    • Folic acid: We have learned that getting folic acid before and during the early weeks of pregnancy greatly reduces the risk of serious birth defects of the brain and spine (e.g., spina bifida and anencephaly). In 1996, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration mandated that by January 1, 1998 all grain products labeled as ‘enriched’, such as breads, cereals, and rice, have folic acid added to them to help reduce the risk of these birth defects. This is known as folic acid fortification. Since folic acid fortification was implemented in the United States, about 15,000 more babies in the United States have been born without one of these serious birth defects as a result of folic acid fortification.
    • Preconception care: CDC and its partners also work to educate women about the importance of preconception health through a campaign called Show Your Love.
  • Improving the lives of individuals with birth defects: Babies who have birth defects often need special care and treatments to survive and thrive developmentally. Birth defects tracking systems provide one way to identify and refer children for services they need as early as possible. Early intervention (treatment for delays in physical, intellectual, communication, social-emotional, and adaptive development) is vital to improving outcomes for babies born with a birth defect.

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  • Page last reviewed: January 13, 2014
  • Page last updated: January 13, 2014
  • Content source:
    • Office of the Associate Director for Communication, Digital Media Branch, Division of Public Affairs
    • Page maintained by: Office of the Associate Director for Communication, Digital Media Branch, Division of Public Affairs
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