Did you know that every year, 1 in 33 babies in the United States are born with birth defects? While some are caused by unknown factors, many can be prevented. January is National Birth Defect Prevention Month, so educate yourself on the best preventative measures:
Getting enough folic acid is essential for the proper formation of your baby’s spinal column and brain development (which occur extremely early in pregnancy). Aim for 0.4 mg a day, starting prior to conception or as soon as you know you’re pregnant, to avoid defects such as spina bifida.
Get screened for sexually transmitted diseases before becoming pregnant. STDs, like genital herpes and syphilis, can cause blindness and even death in newborns.
Avoid (certain) foods like deli meats, which have been know to carry the listeria bacteria and cause miscarriages. Other foods, such as fish with high levels of mercury (shark, swordfish, king mackerel, and others), should also be avoided, since they’ve been linked to developmental delays and brain damage.
Keep blood sugar in check with proper diet and exercise. Pregnant women should aim for 30 minutes of moderate exercise three to five times per week to prevent gestational diabetes, a disease that carries a risk of miscarriage, stillbirth, and heart defects in newborns. Even after delivery, these babies face an increased risk for problems like respiratory disease and type 2 diabetes.
Ask your doctor about the safety of herbal supplements. Because the FDA doesn’t regulate herbal supplements, their effect on infants won’t appear on the label. Some commonly used herbs to avoid during pregnancy include ginseng, which may cause embryo malformations, and ginkgo, which may lead to excessive bleeding. Others, like peppermint tea and ginger root, are safe and can be useful in quelling nausea.
Make sure vaccinations are up to date before becoming pregnant. Viral infections like rubella and chicken pox put your baby at risk for birth defects if you contract one during pregnancy.
Don’t smoke or drink. This one’s a no-brainer. Both alcohol and the countless chemicals in cigarettes can cause major problems like fetal alcohol syndrome, cerebral palsy, mental retardation, low birth weight, and congenital heart defects.