According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, approximately one in every 33 babies is born with a birth defect each year. While January is recognized as Birth Defects Prevention Month, the CDC also reminds us that not all birth defects can be prevented.
There are, however, best practices that women can take to increase the likelihood of a healthy birth and prevent birth defects. I believe if women are empowered by the knowledge that they did everything possible to enhance birth outcomes, then they can be reassured with the peace of knowing that they attempted to do everything right.
When I was first approached to write a post regarding birth defects for the UAB School of Nursing blog, I was happy to be asked but also scared because I was awaiting the birth of my third grandchild. My daughter was taking every precaution to have a healthy baby. From the moment she realized she was, in her words, “growing a human inside of her,” she began to focus not only on her well-being but on the health of her baby. She scheduled an appointment with her health care provider as soon as she found out she was pregnant, ate healthy foods, exercised regularly, took prenatal vitamins every day and gave up alcohol.
As a grandmother and mother, however, I was secretly worried. In my nursing career, I have seen many babies born with expected and unexpected birth defects. My concern stemmed from the fact that even though a mother can do everything in her power to protect her child, birth defects can still happen. And when they are discovered, the joy of pregnancy and birth can be overshadowed by guilt and self-blame.
Even when a mother believes with her heart she is not to blame, there can be lingering thoughts proclaiming, “If only I had done this, or if only I hadn’t done that.” This is something I know personally because during one of my pregnancies, I lost a baby with birth defects, and I still wonder if there is something I should have done or should not have done. Similar questions of “What did I do to cause this?” and “How could I have prevented this?” are common for mothers after giving birth to babies with even the smallest deviation from the perceived “perfect” baby.
I wish it were in my power to alleviate this burden of guilt when I speak with mothers who have given birth to a baby with a birth defect, but sometimes that is not possible. Instead, I hope to educate and empower mothers by providing support and sharing best practices to enhance pregnancy outcomes.
The CDC recommends expecting mothers to take the following actions as soon as they realize they are pregnant:
- Prepare your body for pregnancy and birth:
- Take 400 micrograms of folic acid every day.
- Get healthy and stay healthy – proper weight, nutrition and exercise are important when planning a pregnancy as well as throughout pregnancy and breastfeeding.
- Involve your health care provider:
- Share your plans with your health care provider if you are planning a pregnancy and especially if you unexpectedly become pregnant.
- Educate yourself using reputable resources. The CDC has several on its website: gov/ncbddd/birthdefects/prevention.html
- Stay away from harmful substances:
- Stop smoking. Cigarette smoking can cause cleft lip/ palate and infant death. If you have tried to quit before but were unsuccessful – keep trying. Use resources including your health care provider and free resources from the government, such as Quit Now hhs.gov/
- Quit drinking alcohol. Even small amounts of beer or wine can be harmful to developing babies.
My daughter followed these steps throughout her pregnancy, and just before Christmas, she gave birth to a beautiful, healthy 7-pound, 7-ounce girl. She is perfect, and we are grateful.
Dr. Cathy Roche, PhD, RN, is an assistant professor at UAB School of Nursing. Her research has involved women’s health issues across the lifespan. Early in her nursing career she worked at a “free standing” birth center staffed by certified nurse midwives it was there her love of labor and birth emerged. Currently she teaches Maternal/Child Nursing in the pre-licensure program where she emphasizes communication, education and prevention to student learners.