10 Things You Need to Know About Birth Defects

By Cynthia A. Moore, M.D., Ph.D.

Birth defects are common, costly and critical conditions. Each year, CDC’s National Center on Birth Defects and Developmental Disabilities joins many organizations to recognize January as National Birth Defects Prevention Month. To raise awareness, we’ve compiled a list of 10 things you need to know to know about birth defects.

1. Birth defects are common.

Birth defects affect 1 in 33 babies in the United States every year. For many babies born with a birth defect, there is no family history of the condition.

2. Birth defects are costly and can greatly affect the finances not only of the families involved, but of everyone.

In the United States, birth defects have accounted for over 139,000 hospital stays during a single year, resulting in $2.6 billion in hospital costs. Families and the government share the burden of these costs. Additional costs due to lost wages or occupational limitations can affect families as well.

3. Birth defects are critical conditions.

Birth defects can be very serious, even life-threatening.  About 1 in every 5 deaths of babies before their first birthday is caused by birth defects in the United States. Babies with birth defects who survive their first year of life can have lifelong challenges, such as problems with infections, physical movement, learning, and speech.

4. Women should get folic acid before and during early pregnancy to help prevent birth defects.

Because half of all pregnancies in the United States are not planned, all women who can become pregnant should get 400 micrograms of folic acid every day. Two easy ways women can get enough folic acid each day are by taking a multivitamin that has folic acid in it or by eating a serving of fully fortified breakfast cereal. Folic acid helps a baby’s brain and spine develop very early in the first month of pregnancy when a woman might not know she is pregnant.

5. Many birth defects are diagnosed after a baby leaves the hospital.

Many birth defects are not found immediately at birth, but most are found within the first year of life. A birth defect can affect how the body looks, how it works, or both. Some birth defects like cleft lip or spina bifida are easy to see. Others, like heart defects, are found using special tests, such as x-rays or echocardiography.

6. Some birth defects can be diagnosed before birth.

Tests like an ultrasound and amniocentesis can detect some birth defects such as spina bifida, heart defects, or Down syndrome before a baby is born. Prenatal care and screening are important because early diagnosis allows families to make decisions and plan for the future.

7. Birth defects can be caused by many different things, not just genetics.

Most birth defects are thought to be caused by a complex mix of factors. These factors include our genes, our behaviors, and things in the environment. For some birth defects, we know the cause. But for most, we don’t. Use of cigarettes, alcohol, and other drugs; taking certain medicines; and exposure to chemicals and infectious diseases during pregnancy have been linked to birth defects. Researchers are studying the role of these factors, as well as genetics, as causes of birth defects.

8. Some birth defects can be prevented.

A woman can take some important steps before and during pregnancy to help prevent birth defects. She can be sure to get enough folic acid every day; have regular medical checkups; make sure medical conditions, such as diabetes, are under control; have tests for infectious diseases and get necessary vaccinations; and not use cigarettes, alcohol, or other drugs.

9. There is no known safe amount of alcohol or safe time to drink during pregnancy.

Fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASDs) are a group of conditions that can occur in a person whose mother drank alcohol during pregnancy. These effects can include physical problems and problems with behavior and learning which can last a lifetime. There is no known safe amount, no safe time, and no safe type of alcohol to drink during pregnancy. FASDs are completely preventable if a woman does not drink alcohol while pregnant.

10. An unborn child is not always protected from the outside world.

The placenta, which attaches a baby to the mother, is not a strong barrier. When a mother uses cigarettes, alcohol, or other drugs, or is exposed to infectious diseases, her baby is exposed also. Healthy habits like getting enough folic acid daily and eating nutritious foods can help ensure that a child has the best chance to be born healthy.

CDC’s National Center on Birth Defects and Developmental Disabilities works to identify causes of birth defects, find opportunities to prevent them, and improve the health of those living with birth defects.

For more information about birth defects prevention, visit: www.cdc.gov/birthdefects.

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Baby Care Basics: When a Baby Has a Birth Defect
Baby Care Basics: When a Baby Has a Birth Defect
Baby Care Basics: When a Baby Has a Birth Defect

Cynthia A. Moore, M.D., Ph.D. is the Director of the Division of Birth Defects and Developmental Disabilities at the National Center on Birth Defects and Developmental Disabilities with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

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