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While birth defects is not a subject parents-to-be are especially keen to discuss, it’s vital to open this conversation as early as possible.

In the U.S., about 3 percent of babies are born with a congenital or hereditary birth defect. Fortunately, a lot can be done to prevent these abnormalities from occurring, both before and after conception.

Many common birth defects require medical or surgical intervention, but are not life-threatening. The term “birth defect” carries negative undertones, but it should be understood that many developmental abnormalities are perfectly treatable, and have no effect on a child’s talents and abilities.

COMMON CAUSES

Most congenital abnormalities – those acquired after conception – occur in the first three months of pregnancy, when the baby’s organs are forming. In rare cases, an abnormality may be found after birth, with the help of a genetic counselor.

Many can be prevented with proper diet and abstinence from alcohol and tobacco. In particular, smoke deprives the fetus of oxygen, which can lead to slower growth and low birth weight. Smoking has also been shown to cause cleft palate or cleft lip. Likelihood of preterm birth is much higher, and risk of stillbirth is highly elevated when compared to pregnant women who don’t smoke.

Alcohol is no less dangerous, crossing the placenta and entering the embryo or fetus. This can cause fetal alcohol syndrome, physical challenges and behavioral problems. Certain prescription drugs are also known to cause birth defects. Additionally, a lack of folic acid, both before and after conception, is known to cause neural tube defects like spina bifida.

Likelihood of a developmental abnormality is elevated if a family member was born with a birth defect. This is particularly evident in families with a history of extra or missing chromosomes.

OLDER WOMEN

There is a pervasive cultural notion that pregnancy is riskier for older women. In her book “Women’s Bodies, Women’s Wisdom,” prominent physician and OB/GYN Dr. Christiane Northrup argues that more so than age, an individual woman’s health has a huge influence on the health of her baby.

“Age doesn’t predict anything when it comes to labor and birth,” Northrup said. “A 40-year-old in excellent health who has a planned pregnancy is apt to do much better than a 25-year-old who smokes two packs and quaffs a gallon of Diet Coke per day.”

Down syndrome is one possible exception to the rule; many studies show it’s more likely to occur in mothers over 35.

PRESCRIPTION DRUGS

Some prescription drugs are known to cause birth defects, in particular thalidomide and isotretinoin (sold under the brand name Accutane). These drugs should be avoided at all costs if pregnancy is even a consideration. Reliable birth control is recommended to anyone using these drugs.

Painkillers like oxycontin, vicodin and percocet are also known to elevate the risk of neural tube defects, such as spina bifida. Depression medications aren’t safe, either, but alternatives do exist. A 2002 study by Yale University showed that bright light therapy improved depression in pregnant mothers by 49 percent, with no adverse effects on the baby.

Women who are pregnant or considering becoming pregnant should consult a doctor about any drugs they may be taking, including vitamins, supplements and natural remedies.

PREVENTION

In the U.S., nearly half of all pregnancies are unplanned. Planning for a baby is so critical, since most birth defects occur early. If a mother-to-be isn’t aware of the pregnancy, she may continue unhealthy habits, unknowingly putting her baby at risk. Good preconception nutrition can go a long way in terms of a healthy pregnancy.

Statistically speaking, the rate of congenital birth defects is much lower in women whose bodies are replete in folic acid. Most doctors recommend at least 400 mcg of vitamin B folic acid, though Northrup recommends 800 mcg, even before conception. This prevents birth defects including cleft lip and spina bifida. Folic acid is best taken with other B vitamins, since they work synergistically. Omega-3 fats also are incredibly helpful, especially DHA, the fat that makes up the baby’s brain, eyes, heart and immune system. If possible, take fish oil regularly before conception, and ramp up the dosage during pregnancy. Of women who took at least 400 mg of marine algae per day during pregnancy (an essential fatty acid and vegan alternative to fish oil), Northrup said: “These women have the smartest babies I’ve ever seen.”

Smoking and drinking should be avoided. Again, it’s best to quit as early as possible before conception and prepare the body.

MIND/BODY CONNECTION

Women who are well-supported during pregnancy tend to have healthier babies and easier labor. They also enjoy lower rates of Caesarean section and episiotomy. Labor support from a doula – a trained professional who “mothers the mother” – can go a long way to helping a mother feel supported and loved.

Calm Birth is a method of childbirth preparation that takes a mind-body approach, using proven techniques to reduce fear and anxiety, thereby decreasing the risk of complications. Meditation helps to transform negative energy and develop a sense of wholeness and safety during pregnancy, which can have a profound effect on the health of the baby.