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Birth defects awareness & prevention

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As an academic medical institution, SIU School of Medicine has been sharing information for National Birth Defects Awareness Month within our community. Here are some helpful things to know about birth defects and how our providers can assist you and your family. 

1. Birth defects are surprisingly common. 

Birth defects are structural changes that are present at birth and can affect one or many parts of the body, including the heart, spine, brain and mouth. The most common types of birth defects include spina bifida, cleft lip and palate, and congenital heart defects.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 1 in every 33 babies born in the United States has a birth defect.

2. Birth defects can have multiple causes. 

Birth defects can be caused by genetic or chromosomal abnormalities, maternal obesity, maternal nutrient imbalances and exposure to medications, chemicals or other substances during pregnancy. Recent research suggests that maternal stress due to heightened stress hormones during pregnancy may also increase the risk of birth defects. 

Sometimes birth defects occur without any clear underlying cause.

3. There are ways to prevent birth defects. 

Not all birth defects are preventable, but there are things you and your partner can do before and during pregnancy that will increase your chances of having a healthy baby. Here are some important steps recommended by our obstetrics and gynecology team at SIU: 

  • If you are on any medications, talk to your doctor about whether these are safe to take during pregnancy. If necessary, make a plan with your provider to stop these medications or transition to something else before conceiving. 
  • Reduce your exposure to toxins. Stop using tobacco, marijuana, alcohol and illicit drugs, and reduce your intake of caffeine. 
  • Work on achieving a healthy weight prior to pregnancy. Your health care provider can help you establish a healthy diet and exercise routine, which will likely include whole, nutrient dense foods and moderately intense aerobic exercise and resistance training.
  • Take steps to avoid infections. Infection with certain viruses, like the Zika virus, has been linked to certain birth defects.
  • Avoid overheating while pregnant. SIU Medicine follows the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists guidelines advising women NOT to use hot tubs or saunas during pregnancy. Hot tubs and saunas can elevate a woman’s core temperature too high, which may lead to birth defects. Tell your doctor if you develop a fever while pregnant and treat it promptly. 
  • Start taking a daily prenatal vitamin at least 1 month prior to conceiving. In addition to keeping a healthy diet, add a prenatal vitamin to your routine. This helps ensure your baby gets all the nutrients it needs to develop properly! Make sure your prenatal vitamin contains at least 400 micrograms of folic acid (vitamin B9). Folic acid is important for fetal development and specifically important for the formation of the neural tube (the early brain and spine). Women who don't get enough folic acid are at increased risk of having a child born with a neural tube defect, like anencephaly or spina bifida.

Regarding prenatal vitamins containing folic acid vs. folate: In general, either can be used. Folic acid is the synthetic form of folate, which is found naturally in foods like beef liver, legumes, leafy green vegetables, eggs, beets and citrus fruits. Your body converts folic acid into folate, which help prevent spina bifida.   

Do you have questions about birth defects?

When it comes to preventing birth defects, the most important thing to do is talk to your OB/GYN about your family planning journey so that they can make an individualized plan for you and help you manage any underlying health conditions that could influence the health and development of your baby.

SIU Medicine brings the latest medical research and knowledgeable, compassionate providers to central and southern Illinois. If you've been told your child has a birth defect, or if you're pregnant or trying to become pregnant and have questions about your baby's health, contact SIU Medicine at 217-545-8000 to schedule an appointment with an OB/GYN or pediatrician.

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