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House Call: Take steps to lower risk of birth defects

Tue., Jan. 21, 2014

Pregnancy can be scary. Trying to be healthy and help your baby grow and develop well can seem overwhelming.

Even when you do everything right, with any pregnancy there is a risk of one or more of the many different types of birth defects. Some birth defects are preventable and others can be treated.

We know there are steps a woman can take to lower her baby’s risk of certain birth defects. It is also true that advancements in medicine have made it possible for children to live healthy lives in spite of defects that would have caused early death only a short time ago.

There are many important steps to take before and during pregnancy to give your future baby the best chance of not developing birth defects, especially the kind that occur before you may know you are pregnant.

If you are having unprotected intercourse, are planning a pregnancy or are already pregnant, I recommend the following:

Take 400 micrograms of folic acid daily. This is included in prenatal vitamins and many multivitamins.

Do not drink alcohol. It can cause fetal alcohol spectrum disorder.

Do not smoke or use marijuana or street drugs since these can cause premature birth, low birth weight and birth defects. Smoking during pregnancy increases your baby’s risk for asthma.

Talk with your health care provider about vaccinations to prevent infections.

Prevent infections by washing your hands frequently, not sharing utensils and cups when eating and drinking, cooking meat until it is well done, avoiding raw milk and foods made from it and not handling dirty cat litter.

Talk with your health care provider about medications, including over-the-counter medication and herbal supplements. Do not stop or start medications without discussing it with your health care provider first.

Maintain a healthy body weight. Obesity increases the risk of birth defects and diabetes in pregnancy and being underweight increases the risk of premature birth.

Keep diabetes under control. Poorly controlled diabetes can increase your baby’s risk of developing birth defects.

In the United States, about 3 percent of babies are born with birth defects.

Even here there is good news though. Several types of birth defects can be repaired to give babies a good chance at longer, healthier lives.

Cleft lips and cleft palates, which can adversely affect feeding and speech development, are usually repaired with surgery early in life.

Heart defects are the most common kind of birth defects and there are several different types. Many can now be repaired with surgery. When surgery is done will depend on the type of heart defect and the baby’s or child’s overall health.

Abnormalities of a newborn baby’s abdominal wall or stomach are often corrected with surgery soon after birth.

Depending on the severity, spina bifida can be treated with surgery: in some cases, this can be done before birth.

Missing fingers or thumbs may be reconstructed by a skilled surgeon.

In all of these situations, surgery is not a quick fix or something to be taken lightly. Additional surgeries may be needed later in life and there may be time and effort necessary for after-care visits, monitoring the child’s health and in physical, speech or occupational therapy. Regular visits to a specialist physician may be recommended to continue through adulthood to monitor your child’s health and watch for complications.

Health care providers have ways of helping women reduce their babies’ risk of developing birth defects and more of them are treatable now than in years past. Hopefully in the future we will be able to do even more.

Dr. Alisa Hideg is a family medicine physician at Group Health’s Riverfront Medical Center in Spokane. Her column appears every other Tuesday in the Today section.

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