Every four and a half minutes, a child is born with some form of birth defect. That’s more than 120,000 babies per year, about one in 33 births. Many don’t survive; it’s the leading cause of infant mortality in the United States. Those who do wind up with a variety of conditions, such as congenital heart defects, cleft lip or palate, defects of the brain or spine, or genetic syndromes such as Down syndrome. Some have only a minor and brief effect on a baby’s health, but others are for life.
Many pregnancies are unanticipated, and birth defects often occur early. If you think it’s likely that you’re going to have a baby in the near future, even if you have no specific plans to, it’s not too early to do things like take folic acid, quit smoking, and avoid alcohol.
If you are planning to have a baby, you can see an obstetrician before you become pregnant for a preconception visit. The doctor can give you conception advice that may be useful even if there are no fertility issues expected, and can create an individualized care plan built around your particular lifestyle and needs. If you have chronic health conditions, this is particularly important, so the doctor can determine what steps you should take to minimize the effect on the fetus, and if there are medications you’re taking that can be harmful, and if you can perhaps change medications or dosages to prevent this harm.
In general, as mentioned, you shouldn’t drink, smoke, or use street drugs, while pregnant, and when you become pregnant or start deliberately trying for a baby you should certainly consult your doctor about prescription or over-the-counter drugs you may be taking. What you should take is prenatal vitamins, which include folic acid. Folic acid is important for preventing spina bifida and other neural tube defects, which generally occur in the first trimester.
Environmental toxins are another potential cause of problems. Anything with lead, a neurotoxin that can cause brain damage and developmental delays, should be absolutely avoided. If you must work with solvents and other chemicals, do so in a well-ventilated area and protect yourself with gloves and a mask. Also avoid radiation, which is often a problem if you work in the medical field. As a patient, let medical personnel know you’re pregnant before any sort of scan. In fact, tell doctors performing any procedure about your pregnancy. It may not be a problem, but better they should know.