Birth Defects

What are Birth Defects?

Formally known as congenital disorders, birth defects are abnormalities present in a newborn. The abnormalities manifest in the baby either physically or chemically and range from mild to severe. Most birth defects occur during the first three months of pregnancy, when the organs are still in the development phase.

How Common are Birth Defects?

Birth defects are common and occur once every 33 births in the United States. Every year, these conditions affect 120,000 newborns.

Are Birth Defects Fatal?

Birth defects can be fatal; in fact, they are the largest cause of infant mortality. Congenital disorders account for 20% of all infant deaths.

What Causes Birth Defects?

Birth defects are mainly either inherited or created from an environmental influence. However, birth defects may still occur in babies that do not meet the following criteria.

Inherited birth defects manifest when a gene or chromosome is missing or undergoes a mutation or change. An extra chromosome also creates an abnormality. Some babies inherit conditions from a family member who also has a birth defect.

Environmentally influenced birth defects emerge when the mother experiences toxic substances, medications, viruses, and infections during pregnancy. The mother’s health conditions, such as uncontrolled diabetes and obesity, potentially increase the chances of a birth defect.

What are Some Specific Types of Birth Defects?

These anomalies can fall into two different categories: structural birth defects and functional or developmental birth defects. Structural birth defects affect the structure of a newborn’s body parts. Some of these deformities include cleft lips or palates, abnormal limbs, heart defects, and neural tube defects. Neural tube defects such as spina bifida are particularly dangerous, as they affect the growth and development of the spinal cord and brain.

Developmental birth defects affect the way a body part or system functions. These defects impact the nervous system and the brain, leading to issues with behavior, intellect, senses, metabolism, and movement. Some of these conditions degenerate health over time and may not manifest immediately at birth. Examples of these defects include Down syndrome, Fragile X syndrome, and muscular dystrophy.

How are Birth Defects Prevented?

Genes and chromosomes control inherited birth defects, making them unpreventable. However, mothers can reduce the probability of defects created from environmental exposure. Pregnant mothers must avoid alcohol and tobacco at all costs, as a baby can absorb those chemicals through the umbilical cord. Pregnant women should practice a healthy lifestyle to keep cholesterol under control, prevent birth complications from obesity, and avoid infections. Finally, mothers should consult their health care providers to take the appropriate medications and vaccines while pregnant.

A particularly effective method of preventing birth defects is through consumption of folic acid, which is a B vitamin that prevents brain and spinal birth defects. The recommended intake of folic acid is 400 micrograms daily from fortified foods and supplements.

What Should the Mother do if an Infant has a Birth Defect?

Once a child is diagnosed with a birth defect, the mother should seek help as soon as possible. Health care providers can work with specialists to determine the child’s developmental needs and create a treatment program. Early intervention reduces the possibility of future complications after birth. Self-education about the defect is helpful and available through health care providers, books, research studies, and parental support groups.

Emotional support is essential to deal with feelings of shock, denial, or anger. A health care provider can recommend a social worker or a psychologist to help the mother.