January is National Birth Defects Prevention Awareness Month. As a woman who is pregnant, trying to get pregnant, or will one day get pregnant, it's important to know what current research says about preventing birth defects. According to the National Birth Defects Prevention Network (NBDPN), birth defects are the leading cause of infant mortality. The good news, however, is that you can take steps before and during your pregnancy to prevent birth defects. NBDPN advises women who are pregnant or who are planning to become pregnant to take the following steps to prevent birth defects:
- Consume 400 micrograms of folic acid daily
- Manage chronic maternal illnesses such as diabetes, seizure disorders, or phenylketonuria (PKU)
- Reach and maintain a healthy weight
- Talk to a health care provider about taking any medications, both prescription and over-the-counter
- Avoid alcohol, smoking, and illicit drugs
- See a health care provider regularly
- Avoid toxic substances at work or at home
- Ensure protection against domestic violence
- Know their family history and seek reproductive genetic counseling, if appropriate
Patricia Olney, MS, a certified genetic counselor and pregnancy risk specialist at MotherToBaby (the pregnancy and breastfeeding medications and toxins exposure specialist organization) informs parents about the importance of taking folic acid:
Since one-half of U.S. pregnancies are unplanned and because birth defects occur very early in pregnancy (3-4 weeks after conception), the United States Centers for Disease Control recommends all women of childbearing age consume folic acid daily. CDC estimates that most of these birth defects could be prevented if this recommendation were followed before and during early pregnancy.
Folic acid can be found naturally in dark leafy greens (spinach, kale, collard greens, romaine lettuce), asparagus, broccoli, brussels sprouts, cauliflower, celery, carrots, squash, beets, oranges, papayas, grapefruit, strawberries, fruits (bananas, melons, and lemons), beans (with lentils yielding the highest amount), seeds and nuts, avocado, yeast, mushrooms, and beef. To ensure that you are receiving sufficient folic acid on a daily basis, CDC advises taking a synthetic supplement (vitamin) of folic acid that delivers at least 400 micrograms of folic acid.To learn more about prevention or find a support group, NBDPN has created a comprehensive list of birth defect internet resources for parents and families.