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Nearly one baby out of every 33 U.S. births arrives in this world with a birth defect. Birth defects can impact almost any body part, affect how a body part looks and/or functions, and can affect your baby’s life span. In fact, birth defects account for 20 percent of all infant deaths, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Although not all birth defects can be prevented, you can increase the chances of having a healthy baby by planning ahead and adopting certain habits during the nine months you carry your child. We spoke with San Francisco obstetrician Tirun Gopal, M.D., of California Pacific Medical Center, to learn more about what you can do to prevent birth defects and have the healthiest pregnancy possible.
If a pregnant woman wants to prevent birth defects, how important is prenatal care and regular doctor visits?
Regular prenatal care results in detection of potential problems in a timely manner so that interventions can be taken. With regular prenatal care, you have a medical partner working with you toward a healthy pregnancy and birth.
What are some behaviors women can adopt before becoming pregnant that will increase their chances of having a healthy pregnancy?
Discard habits such as binge drinking (a very high percentage of young women indulge in this behavior), smoking, irregular meals, etc. Instead, adopt regular and wholesome eating, and a sound frame of mind with good and positive thoughts.
Do certain foods and vitamins decrease the chances of birth defects?
Folic acid has been known to reduce the risk of spina bifida. Whereas fish is a healthy source of Omega fatty acids, one has to be careful about the amount and type of fish consumed during pregnancy. An ideal diet would be large portions of leafy green vegetables, fresh fruits and nuts. The more color there is in your food, the better it is.
How does weight contribute to a healthy pregnancy?
Being overweight – or underweight – can have an impact on your pregnancy. Being overweight is substantially worse and increases the risk of miscarriages, diabetes, hypertension, preeclampsia, large babies, and dysfunctional labor resulting in C-sections. However, if you are already pregnant, it is not a time to “diet” and attempt to lose weight.
How important is it to for moms-to-be to cut caffeine from their diets?
It depends on the amount of caffeine consumed and the concentration of the beverage. A moderate-sized cup of coffee will do no harm, but any more can be potentially harmful. There is no definite correlation established between the amount of caffeine intake and the potential for problems, but moderation is best.
Which over-the-counter (OTC) medications are OK to take while pregnant?
Most obstetricians believe that it is best to avoid any and all medications during your pregnancy. In other words, if you can do without it, avoid it.
Pregnancy is a mucus-producing condition. Most women will experience some nasal or sinus congestion during pregnancy. Some OTC products such as decongestants, Tylenol, cough syrups, etc. are acceptable during pregnancy. Natural decongestants such as ginger, cardamom, cumin and turmeric are much more preferable. Check with your medical provider if you believe you need an OTC medication during your pregnancy.
Is it safe to continue taking prescribed anti-depressants or anti-anxiety medications during pregnancy?
There is concern about the possibility of some selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) being associated with birth defects, although the jury is still out on this. But there is evidence that babies experience withdrawal symptoms such as poor thriving, jitteriness, high pitched crying, and later on, some behavioral problems. This concern has to be balanced against the risk of severe depression and its consequences, if the anti-depressants are withdrawn during pregnancy.
Depression in the mother is itself known to cause problems for the mother and baby. Therefore, whether or not treatment should be continued is a decision which is to be made on an individual basis.
What about prescribed, medicinal marijuana?
There is no place for marijuana or any other recreational drugs during pregnancy. Some advocates would argue that it has benefits, but the risks of this medication during pregnancy far outweigh any potential benefits.
What are some of the risks of smoking while pregnant?
Smoking is a preventable cause of bad health. One inhalation (puff) from a cigarette results in the reduction of baby’s blood supply by almost 50 percent in the first 10 seconds. By the time this reduction in blood supply resolves, the person has taken at least 10 more puffs, resulting in a cumulative effect.
Second hand smoke is even worse, in that it is combusted but unfiltered. Smoking has directly been associated with miscarriages, growth restriction, placental abruption, and preterm labor. It is also associated with SIDS and childhood leukemia.
Recent reports show a rise in drinking during pregnancy. What are the risks of drinking alcohol during pregnancy? Is there a safe amount?
Alcohol can cause cranio-facial deformities and mental retardation. Although some people suggest that a small amount of alcohol does not cause significant harm, the acceptable amount of alcohol has never been established. Therefore, no alcohol should be consumed during pregnancy. It is reasonable to think that most – if not all – women want to have a healthy child. If this is their desire, there is no room for alcohol during pregnancy.
If you’re planning on getting pregnant, be sure to visit Sutter Health Babies to get special tips for first time moms, information on our pregnancy and childbirth services, and a comprehensive guide for this exciting time.
You can also test your knowledge of birth defects by taking this quiz.
Tirun Gopal, M.D., is an OB/GYN with the California Pacific Medical Center.