Birth Defects Prevention Month – How can I reduce the risk?
12th January 2020
January is Birth Defects Prevention Month. The National Birth Defects Prevention organisation highlights the importance of maternal health in their 2020 theme: ‘Best for You. Best for Baby’. Essentially, what’s good for you will boost your fertility health, as well as the health of your baby once you conceive! It might sound simple, but with so much misinformation out there, it can sometimes be difficult to know exactly how best to prevent birth defects, as much as possible.
This month, we set out the five most important factors in maintaining a safe and healthy pregnancy, and how you can prevent birth defects while trying to conceive.
How can you help prevent birth defects?
Unfortunately, not all birth defects are preventable. So, it’s important to know that if you’re doing everything you should be, elements like genetics and chance will still be out of your control.
However, you can take lots of steps to make sure you’re in good health, which maximises your chances of conceiving and delivering a healthy baby.
Most importantly, a proactive approach helps at every stage of your fertility journey. This applies to birth defects because neural tube defects can develop very early on in a pregnancy – perhaps before you know you’re pregnant. This is why we empower women to take charge of their fertility health ahead of time, even if you’re just thinking about having children in the distant future.
So, let’s get right into what you can do to help prevent birth defects and ensure a healthy pregnancy!
You’ve heard this before, but: take folic acid
This won’t be news if you’re trying to conceive, but folic acid is essential for both preconception and during pregnancy. There are a lot of vitamins and supplements out there being peddled to women who are trying to conceive or pregnant, and this can create room for confusion around what you actually need.
The current NHS advice in the United Kingdom is that if you’re trying to conceive, you should be taking 400 micrograms of folic acid every day, up to week 12 in your pregnancy. Additionally, the NHS recommends 10 micrograms of vitamin D during pregnancy or breastfeeding (but if you’re in the UK, we’d recommend taking Vit D supplements anyway, since we rarely get enough sunshine!).
Folic acid helps prevent birth defects in the brain and spine (e.g. anencephaly and spina bifida). These types of major defects are called ‘neural tube’ defects. Whilst the minimum you should take anyway is 400 micrograms, your doctor may suggest a higher dose of folic acid – even up to 500 milligrams daily.
You may also have heard of folate, which is a general term for various forms of vitamin B9. Folate is the naturally occurring form of folic acid and can be found in leafy green vegetables, citrus fruits and beans. It should form an essential part of your fertility diet plan. While you should aim to get folate from your diet, folic acid is the only form of folate proven to prevent birth defects. This is why it’s essential you get enough.
You can read more around folic acid in our blog post here.
Obviously, we should all be striving to lead a healthy lifestyle anyway – the benefits are so far-reaching! Learning to love exercise and to enjoy cooking nutritious, balanced meals is important for both our physical and mental health. However, when you are looking to expand your family, your health becomes even more crucial. Maintaining a good BMI can be an important factor in conceiving, but did you know being overweight can also put your baby at higher risk or birth defects?
The risk attached to weight is a sliding scale – with seriously obese women being in the most dangerous position. Research has found a connection between obesity and an increase in birth defects. Defects linked to congenital heart disease are most common.
If you’re a bit of a gym-phobe, the best thing to do is to start small and always try to make it fun! You don’t need to start doing two HIIT classes a day or sign up for a half marathon. Begin by trying to increase your everyday activity slowly – whether that’s walking to work instead of taking the bus, or choosing the stairs over the lift. When you’re ready to take it to the next level, find an activity that you actually enjoy. It might be a dance class or a group sport like netball. It’s important that exercise puts a smile on your face and sweat on your forehead.
Once you fall pregnant, remember it’s totally fine to continue exercising. This will help you maintain a healthy weight throughout your pregnancy, thus reducing the risk of birth defects and increasing the chances of a safe delivery. Take it slow, and always ask the advice of your trainer, instructor or GP if you are ever in doubt.
Avoid harmful substances
This sounds like simple advice, but anything that could harm your body could harm your baby. When it comes to vices like alcohol, smoking and drugs, the best advice we can give is to try to give up before you get pregnant. Not only will it be beneficial for your personal health, but it means that you won’t have to cope with any withdrawal symptoms, that come with stopping suddenly, when pregnant. These harmful substances can also impact fertility: all the more reason to give up as soon as possible!
Once you fall pregnant, it’s important to remember that everything you consume is transferred to your baby. We all know the damaging effects smoking and drinking can have on an adult’s body, so it’s no surprise that they can have devastating repercussions when absorbed by a growing baby. Babies whose mother’s smoke during pregnancy are at higher risk of defects including cleft lip, and preterm birth. Alcohol consumption can lead to your baby suffering from lifelong physical, behavioural and intellectual disorders – these defects are known as fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASDs). Every form of alcohol can be damaging, so unfortunately even that one bottle of summer cider is out of the question!
Changing habits is never easy, but it’s worth it to know that your baby is developing safely! If you’re struggling with giving up smoking or drinking, chat to your GP about manageable ways to make the transition.
Review your medication
Certain medications cause birth defects. Like lots of women, you might be on medication for common conditions like asthma, thyroid disorders hypertension. If you’re on any medication at all, it’s best to tell your healthcare practitioner that you’re trying to conceive. This is to make sure that the medication you’re taking is safe for your baby should you become pregnant.
Even if your medication labels say the drugs are safe to take during pregnancy, we recommend speaking to your GP or one of our experts. It‘s always best to get a professional opinion based on your own personal health and situation.
If you’re trying to conceive, it’s also worth discussing your family medical history with your GP or our experts, so we can be sure we’re doing all we can to prevent birth defects stemming from genetic causes.
Get your shots!
Not the fun ones, unfortunately. Staying up to date with your vaccines is essential for protecting you and your baby. If you’re trying to conceive, a quick chat with your GP will reveal any gaps in your vaccination history – keeping you healthy and helping to prevent birth defects, They will also be able to advise which vaccinations are safe for pregnant women.
The vast majority of vaccinations are safe, and some are even highly recommended during pregnancy, such as the whooping cough vaccine. This vaccine will help protect your baby before it is able to have its own vaccinations. It also reduces the risk of, you as the mother, contracting a serious condition at your most vulnerable time. You can get this shot in the last trimester of each pregnancy.
The flu shot should also be top of your preconception plan to-do list. The vaccination is the best way to protect you from getting the flu – and it will also protect your baby if you’re pregnant. Pregnant women are more prone to coming down with serious illness if they contract the flu, and if this develops into a fever it can be extremely dangerous for a developing baby. If you catch the flu while you’re pregnant, it could also cause your baby to be born prematurely or have a low birth weight, and may even lead to stillbirth or death. Studies have shown that flu shots are safe during pregnancy, so speak to your GP about getting up to date with yours as soon as you decide to expand your family.
So, there’s our five top tips on reducing the risk of birth defects! If you would like to know more, or have questions about your reproductive health, join today for free access to our panel of fertility experts. Our members also benefit from guided meditation, nutrition tips and a like-minded, supportive community.