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7 Ways to Prevent Birth Defects Before and During Pregnancy

One in every 33 babies will be born with a birth defect, reports the Centers for Disease and Control (CDC). Most birth defects occur during the first three months of pregnancy, though some can happen later in gestation. While the cause of some birth defects is unknown, others have been clearly linked to a cause. All mothers want to give their babies the best beginning they can, and here are some ways to help you do just that.

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Take a multivitamin with folic acid

If you’re trying to conceive, it’s recommended that you take a daily multivitamin with at least 400 micrograms of folic acid. Folic acid is an important B vitamin that has been shown to reduce birth defects, mainly spina bifida and anencephaly. Having an adequate amount of folic acid in your system prior to conception is best to reap these benefits, but it’s important to begin taking it as soon as you learn of a pregnancy. (That’s why it’s important all women of child-bearing age who could get pregnant, even accidentally, take a supplement.)

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Eat a nutritionally rich diet

Eating well is one of the best ways to ensure that your unborn child has the best chance of entering the world completely healthy. Enjoying foods that are rich in vitamins, including folic acid along with vitamin C, ensures you’re getting enough of those vitamins since your body absorbs them better through food than through supplements. So make sure plenty of fruits and veggies are on your plate all throughout pregnancy, as well as lean proteins. Of course, pregnancy is not a time to try a new diet, unless it has been recommended by your doctor. Bottom line: Eat foods naturally rich in nutrition, avoid empty calories, and you’ll be on the right track to help your baby have a healthy beginning. Here are 50 healthy eating tips to help you get started.

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Stop alcohol, tobacco, and drugs

According to the CDC, alcohol, tobacco, and drug use can cause preterm birth, low birth weight, stillbirth, and miscarriage, just to name a few of the consequences of use during pregnancy. Quitting smoking before becoming pregnant is strongly advised, however stopping during pregnancy as soon as possible will still provide some protection to the baby. As for having an “occasional glass of wine,” consider it a definite don’t. Alcohol has no place during a pregnancy, and misinformation about a safe amount (there is none) or type of alcohol (all types are equally damaging) to consume during gestation can lead to health risks for the unborn baby such as miscarriage or developmental disabilities.

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Avoid taking unnecessary medications

Some medications during pregnancy might be required—and necessary— such as those that manage chronic conditions, like hypothyroidism. Others, however, are not recommended for use during pregnancy as they cross the placenta and may cause birth defects. Most medicines simply do not have enough research data to support use during gestation, as few drug studies are conducted on pregnant women. Some medications that have definitively been linked to birth defects, such as thalidomide (Thalomid) and isotretinoin (Accutane), should never be used during pregnancy. Natural herbs should be considered medication and be avoided, as some types can negatively affect a fetus or be detrimental to a pregnancy. As a general rule, it’s best to only take medication when it’s absolutely needed, and discuss its use with your doctor prior to taking any over-the-counter drug, prescription medication, or herbal supplement.

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Consider family history

According to, there are more than 7,000 birth defects with a genetic cause. A family with a history of birth defects on either side should take a close look at their genetic makeup to determine if their unborn child might be at risk. A genetic counselor can walk a couple through their family histories and offer a risk evaluation for any children they may have. Heart disorders, sickle cell disease, and Down syndrome are some of the most common birth defects with a genetic component. Couples with questions regarding the possibility of having a child with a genetic birth defect should contact their OB for a referral to a genetic counselor.

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Maintain a healthy weight

While maintaining a healthy weight is always recommended, research has shown that when it comes to pregnancy, it is even more important. Women considered to be obese before and during pregnancy are more likely to have babies born with birth defects, including those of the brain and spinal cord. Though the overall difference in risk between a woman with a healthy weight and a weight considered to be obese is slight (a woman with a healthy weight has a three in 100 risk of having a baby with birth defects, compared to four in 100 for an obese woman), the risk of having a baby with spina bifida, a condition affecting the spinal cord of a fetus, is doubled in women considered to be obese. Spina bifida can also be prevented by taking the recommended 400 micrograms of folic acid before and during pregnancy. Women who want to reduce their risk of weight-related birth defects during pregnancy should discuss diet and lifestyle changes with their physician prior to conceiving a child.

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Consider age

Although women are often told age is just a number, age deserves a bit more attention when it comes to pregnancy. Women over 35 are at increased risk for birth defects mainly connected to genetic mutations, such as damaged or extra genes, the most common being Down syndrome. Extra testing during pregnancy is often advised for women over 35, and can be done through a simple blood test, amniocentesis, or chorionic villus sampling. Think you’re ready to have a baby? Ask yourself these questions before you start trying.

Jen Babakhan
Jen Babakhan is an author and credentialed educator living in California. She writes regularly about advice and culture for Reader's Digest. She is also the author of Detoured: The Messy, Grace-Filled Journey From Working Professional to Stay-at-Home Mom (Harvest House Publishers, 2019). She earned her BA in Communication Studies from California State University, Stanislaus. You can follow her on Instagram @JenBabakhan , Twitter @JenBabakhan, and Facebook @JenBabakhanauthor.