Preventing Birth Defects

Make a Reproductive Life Plan and Schedule a Preconception Doctor’s Visit

happy family with expecting motherMake a reproductive life plan to think about your goals for school, your job or career, and other important things in your life. Then, think about how having children fits in with these goals. When you are ready, plan your pregnancy. Whether you are trying to have a baby or are just thinking about it sometime in the near or distant future, it is never too early to start getting ready for pregnancy.

Women should see their healthcare provider BEFORE they get pregnant. This is called preconception care. Many birth defects occur in the very early weeks of pregnancy before a woman has missed her first menstrual period, so she must see her doctor to discuss medical and family history before she conceives. This is especially important for women who have had a previous child with birth defects. Interconception care provides a unique opportunity to address specific risk factors that may have contributed to previous poor pregnancy outcomes.

Consume Enough Folic Acid

If a woman has enough folic acid in her body before and during pregnancy, it can help prevent major birth defects in her baby’s brain and spine. These birth defects are called neural tube defects or NTDs. Research shows that if all women of childbearing age consumed the recommended amount of folic acid, 70% of NTDs could be prevented.

Women who have had a previous NTD-affected pregnancy and are planning another pregnancy should consult their physician about consuming 4 milligrams (4,000 micrograms) of folic acid every day for NTD recurrence prevention. That is 10 times the recommended amount for most other women.

Neural Tube Defect (NTD) Prevention Information

Avoid Alcohol, Illegal Drugs, and Tobacco

These substances can cause birth defects. Ideally, a woman should stop using these substances before she becomes pregnant, but it is never too late to quit.

There is no amount of alcohol that is safe to use during pregnancy. Also, there is no time during pregnancy when it is safe to consume alcohol. All types of alcohol are equally harmful, including wine and beer.

When a pregnant woman uses illegal drugs such as cocaine and marijuana, they are delivered to her unborn baby via the blood supply through the umbilical cord. These and most other illegal drugs pass easily to the fetus and therefore must be avoided.

Smoking may lower the oxygen available to the baby, which can cause the baby to grow more slowly and gain less weight in the womb. In the United States, about 1 in 8 women smoke during pregnancy.

Prevent Infections

Germs that cause only mild or no symptoms at all in adults can be deadly to the unborn fetus. Women of childbearing age can avoid some of these by making sure that all of their immunizations are up-to-date before becoming pregnant. Other harmful germs and parasites can be avoided by using good hygiene.

Manage Medications

Some medications are shown to be harmful to the unborn fetus. Others are necessary for a mother to remain healthy. To find out what medications you should and should not be taking, talk to your physician. Do not start or stop taking new medications (including over-the-counter and herbal remedies) without first talking with your physician.

Control Chronic Conditions

Women who have conditions like diabetes, epilepsy, or obesity should talk to their healthcare provider about measures to take if they are considering pregnancy, or if they discover that they are pregnant. Sometimes better medication or a different dosage is recommended for treating the condition in pregnancy.

Eat Right and Maintain a Healthy Weight

Getting enough folic acid and eating well-balanced and nutritional meals provide a developing baby with the nutritional needs they need to grow properly.

Generally, women who are obese before pregnancy are at a higher risk for complications during their pregnancy. Additionally, the risk for some serious birth defects is increased in women who are obese. Talk with a doctor about ways to reach and maintain a healthy weight before and during your pregnancy.  

Avoid Other Harmful Substances

Because most substances can pass through the placenta into the fetus' blood supply, mothers-to-be should avoid exposure to anything toxic. This includes fumes from strong household chemicals such as gasoline, paints, paint thinner, and pesticides; lead in some paints; and water from contaminated sources. You can find health and safety information about commonly used household products from the National Library of Medicine or by calling the Texas Teratogenic Information Service at 1-855-884-7248.

National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH): Reproductive health and the workplace

This website provides information on workplace hazards that may pose a risk to male and female fertility, pregnancy, breastfeeding, and children’s health. Sub-pages provide information on what employers, workers, and healthcare providers can do to address reproductive hazards in the workplace. Guidance on reducing take-home exposure (chemicals carried into the home and car on skin, clothes, shoes, and hair) is also provided, along with information on personal protective equipment and special issues during pregnancy.

Learn About Genetics

Genetic counseling may be appropriate if you have a family history of birth defects, a previous pregnancy that resulted in a birth defect, or you are 35 years of age or older. Individuals should consult their physician and when appropriate, seek genetic counseling.

See a Doctor Regularly

Even though you may feel healthy, it is important to see your doctor regularly. Doing this can help catch any complications early on. Certain women are at higher risk than others if they have already had a baby with a birth defect. Getting proper care can address any risk factors that may have contributed to poor pregnancy outcomes from a previous pregnancy.

External links to other sites are intended to be informational and do not have the endorsement of the Texas Department of State Health Services. These sites may also not be accessible to people with disabilities.