Birth defects are every mother’s worst nightmare, but the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says about 3 percent of all babies born in the U.S. have birth defects. The CDC also notes that birth defects are the leading cause of death in infants, accounting for 20 percent of deaths in this population group. While you can’t always prevent birth defects, there are ways to lower your risk.
1. Avoid Nutrient Deficiencies
Being deficient in nutrients while pregnant can cause developmental delays, birth defects, lower IQs, mental retardation, and other health problems in babies. Pregnant women have increased risks for certain nutrient deficiencies simply because vitamin and mineral requirements are much higher than non-pregnant women. Important nutrients to get plenty of during pregnancy include omega-3 fatty acids, protein, iron, iodine, calcium, folate (folic acid) and vitamin D. To lower your risk of deficiencies in these crucial nutrients, be sure they are present in your prenatal vitamin.
2. Steer Clear of High-Mercury Fish
Eating large amounts of high mercury fish can cause neurological problems and birth defects in babies, according to one 2011 study. So, steer clear of high-mercury fish — such as shark, swordfish, tilefish, and king mackerel — and eat up to 12 ounces of low-mercury fish weekly when pregnant, suggests the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Examples of lower-mercury fish include salmon, canned light tuna, Pollock, shrimp, and catfish.
3. Have Babies Earlier
In general, the earlier in life you have babies the lower your risk for birth defects. The American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists says that your risk for birth defects caused by damaged, missing, or extra chromosomes increases with age — especially after age 35. Older age boosts your risk for high blood pressure and diabetes, which can also be problematic for babies.
4. Avoid Zika Virus
Zika virus is another cause of birth defects, including microcephaly (small brain and head size). So, it’s important to take proper precautions to prevent contracting the virus – such as using insect repellent when outside, avoiding unprotected sex with new partners, and steering clear of Zika hotbeds while traveling.
5. See a Doctor Regularly
Regular check-ups with your doctor can help ensure everything is going well with your pregnancy. Your doctor completes regular sonograms to make sure your baby is growing and develop properly, takes blood tests to check for and prevent nutrient deficiencies, and checks for certain health conditions – like diabetes, high blood pressure, and thyroid disease – which, if left untreated can lead to birth defects.
6. Avoid Alcohol, Smoking, Drugs, and Certain Medications
Pregnancy is not the time to smoke, drink alcohol, or take street drugs. These behaviors can all lead to birth defects in babies, according to the Texas Department of State Health Services. Certain medications can also be problematic for babies during pregnancy, so always check with your doctor to be sure the medication you’re taking is safe for both you and your baby.
7. Maintain a Healthy Weight
The American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists says that being obese increases your risk for miscarriage, stillbirth, preterm birth, birth defects, and having a very large baby. So if you want to keep birth defect risks low, achieve and maintain a healthy weight before getting pregnant by eating right, getting plenty of sleep, and exercising regularly.
8. Avoid Infections
While you can’t always avoid birth defect-causing infections, several strategies help reduce your risks. These include staying up to date on vaccinations, maintaining good personal hygiene, and avoiding undercooked meats, poultry, fish, and shellfish. Also steer clear of deli meats, meat spreads, raw eggs, soft cheeses, and unpasteurized milk to avoid foodborne infections, suggests the American Pregnancy Association.
There’s no way to avoid your chance of birth defects entirely, but following these few simple tips will greatly reduce your risk.
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