January is National Birth Defects Prevention Month. Birth defects are structural changes present at birth that can affect almost any part or parts of the body (e.g., heart, brain, foot). They may affect how the body looks, works, or both. Birth defects can vary from mild to severe. A birth defect can be found before birth, at birth, or any time after birth.
Birth defects are a serious public health issue in Ohio and across the nation, affecting nearly three to four percent of all babies born in the United States. Examples of just a few types of birth defects are spina bifida, cleft lip and/or palate, sensory defects (such as blindness or deafness), heart defects, clubfoot, Down Syndrome, Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, and certain genetic syndromes.
In Ohio, over 4,000 babies are born each year with birth defect. Birth defects are also one of the leading causes of infant mortality in Ohio and the nation. Thanks to ongoing medical advances, children born with birth defects are living longer. These children and their families still need help. They often need specialized treatment, continued care, and strong social support to improve their overall quality of life.
Not all birth defects can be prevented. But, there are things that a woman can do before and during pregnancy to increase her chance of having a healthy baby:
-Be sure to see your healthcare provider regularly and start prenatal care as soon as you think you might be pregnant.
-Don’t drink alcohol, smoke, or use “street” drugs. There is no ‘safe amount’ of smoking, alcohol or drugs to consume during pregnancy. Using drugs and alcohol during pregnancy is one of the most common known causes of mental and physical birth defects. It is absolutely critical not to drink or use drugs at any time during pregnancy. -Talk to a healthcare provider about any medications you are taking or thinking about taking. This includes prescription and over-the-counter medications and dietary or herbal supplements. Don’t stop or start taking any type of medication without first talking with a doctor. -Learn how to prevent infections during pregnancy: practice good hygiene, wash your hands often with soap and water, avoid sharing cups, utensils or food with others, and make sure your food is cooked properly.
-If possible, be sure any medical conditions are under control before becoming pregnant. Some conditions that increase the risk for birth defects include diabetes and obesity.
-Get vaccinated: Talk to your doctor about getting the flu shot and the whopping cough vaccine, as well as the importance of being up-to-date on all vaccines before getting pregnant.
-Prevent insect bites: use insect repellent, wear long-sleeved shirts and long pants when outside, and avoid travel to areas where animal diseases are common (such as the Zika virus).
-Take the proper steps to prevent sexually transmitted infections, as well as unintended pregnancy.
-Healthy lifestyle: all women capable of becoming pregnant should eat a healthy diet, be physically active, and take a multivitamin with folic acid every day whether they are currently planning a pregnancy or not.
These steps can go a long way in promoting a healthy mom and a healthy baby. To learn more, visit the National Birth Defects Prevention Network at www.nbdpn.org.
Juli Simpson, RN, BSN, LSN, is Maternal & Child Health program director for the Meigs County Health Department.
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