January 29, 2019

Steps to Take to Prevent Birth Defects

More than 120,000 babies are born each year with some type of birth defect. Birth defects most often form in the early part of pregnancy – the first trimester and early second trimester – when the major body systems and organs are forming.

To learn more about different types of birth defects and steps expectant mothers can take to prevent birth defects, we spoke with Dr. Laura Tate, OB/GYN at The University of Kansas Health System St. Francis Campus.

“Birth defects requiring intervention or that cause significant cosmetic disruption occur in approximately two to four percent of live births,” said Tate. “While not all birth defects can be prevented, there are things that a woman can do to decrease her chances of having a pregnancy ending in birth defects.”

Seeking early and regular medical care is the first step. “Having a preconception visit with your physician is important,” said Tate. “At this visit, your doctor can review any medications you are taking or medical conditions you may have that can put pregnancies at an increased risk for a birth defect or other complications. Your doctor can also work with you on strategies to optimize your health prior to pregnancy, including safe weight loss, diabetes management and vaccination recommendations.”

Taking a prenatal multivitamin is imperative for expectant mothers. “This type of vitamin helps to ensure a female is getting the appropriate vitamins and nutrients,” said Tate. “I typically suggest to all of my patients that are reproductive age to take a prenatal multivitamin as their daily multivitamin.”

Dosage for vitamins varies from patient to patient. “Prenatal multivitamins contain Folic acid which, when taken before and early in pregnancy, can help prevent up to 50-70 percent of neural tube defects, including spina bifida” said Tate. “For a first time mom, or a female with no history of neural tube defects, the recommended dose is 400mcg daily. The recommended dose for folic acid increases significantly if a female has already had a child affected by neural tube defects, and should be discussed with your physician.”

Consuming harmful substances while attempting to conceive and during pregnancy should be avoided. “Expectant mothers should not use prescription drugs, alcohol, tobacco, illegal/illicit drugs and radiation,” said Tate. “Infections like the Zika virus should also be avoided. More often, exposure to harmful substances in the first few weeks of pregnancy can result in miscarriage, rather than a birth defect, if the pregnancy is affected. If you are of reproductive age and have started any type of medication, it’s always a good idea to be aware of the pregnancy category of the medication, as there are certain medications that can be harmful to pregnancy.”

Many birth defects can be detected before birth by ultrasound. “Typically during pregnancy, an anatomy ultrasound is obtained between 18 and 22 weeks,” said Tate. “While many people refer to this as the ultrasound where they find out the gender of the baby, physicians utilize this exam to assess for any major defects. Ultrasound is not a perfect science and even with a normal anatomy ultrasound, we can never be completely certain that no birth defects are present, which is why it’s important to have an assessment by a pediatrician or family physician following birth.”

Alpha-fetoprotein, a blood test that is often done when the mother is 15 or 16 weeks pregnant, can suggest presence of neural tube defect. “This is not a diagnostic test, but rather a screening tool,” said Tate.

The most common birth defects that are identified include:

· Abdominal wall defects – omphalocele and gastroschisis

- Both represent a failure of the abdominal wall to close completely, resulting in part of the bowel to be inappropriately outside the baby’s abdomen.

· Neural tube defects

- This includes spina bifida and anencephaly. Neural tube defects occur when an opening either in the brain and spinal cord persists beyond early development.

· Limb abnormalities

- Common findings include club feet, missing or extra digits or webbing between fingers or toes.

The birth defects listed are the most common, but any organ or body system can be affected.

Proper development and growth of a healthy baby is complex. “The process, which is very intricate, has started well before a women often knows she is pregnant and can be disrupted by any number of things, some of which are preventable and others are not,” said Tate. “Maintaining a healthy lifestyle and optimizing your health will increase your chances of a healthy pregnancy.”


Dr. Tate, along with our team of physicians and midwives at The University of Kansas Health System St. Francis Campus Women’s Center, offers a full range of gynecological and obstetric services for keeping you healthy through every stage of life. To learn more or to schedule an appointment, call 785-295-5330.

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