Birth defects are quite common worldwide. Out of a thousand newborns, on average, 15 have birth defects. The consequences usually last a lifetime. Fortunately, most of them are preventable. The old saying that, “prevention is better than cure” has never been so true.
Ensure the Intake of Folate
A folate-rich diet and a daily folic acid supplement at least 3 months before conception have proven to be highly effective in preventing spina bifida and other birth defects.
Maintain a Proper Weight
Research has confirmed that both underweight (thinness) and obesity by the time of conception increase the risk of congenital anomalies in a future baby. Ideal BMI (Body Mass Index) is between 19 and 25.
Underweight is commonly associated with a poor diet and a low nutrient intake, which negatively impact the earliest stages of embryo development.
Obesity is generally associated with an unbalanced diet, high in poor quality fats and refined carbohydrates, and low in fruits and vegetables. Such a diet interferes with normal embryo and fetal development, increasing the risk of birth defects. According to the research, obese (BMI of 30 or higher), but not overweight women (BMI from 25 to 29), are up to 3 times more likely than women of normal weight to deliver babies with:
~ Spina bifida.
~ Omphalocele (an abdominal malformation).
~ Heart defects.
Avoid Some Foods
Some foods may cause infections leading to birth defects, particularly:
~ Undercooked or raw meats, like ham and sausages, as well as raw, non-washed or nonsanitized vegetables may cause toxoplasmosis, a parasitic disease harmful to the fetal brain.
~ Unpasteurized milk and cheese may cause listeriosis, a severe infection leading to brain damage and even to fetal death.
~ Liver meats and liver cod oil, due to their high vitamin A content. The dose of vitamin A in only 100 g of liver is considered teratogenic if taken daily.
Caution with Some Medications
~ Consult a health care provider about taking any medications.
~ Avoid supplements containing high doses of vitamins A (not the vegetable provitamin beta-carotene) and vitamin E, because they are known causes of birth defects.
Abstain from Alcohol
Alcoholic beverages are one of the main causes of birth defects worldwide. Alcohol is a well known teratogen (a substance causing malformations in fetuses). When a pregnant women takes a drink, her fetus is also subject to the harmful effects of alcohol.
During early pregnancy, when a woman is not aware she is pregnant, an embryo is particularly vulnerable to alcohol and other toxicants. Hence, any woman of childbearing age considering pregnancy must completely abstain from alcohol. There is no safe, minimum amount of alcohol for anybody, and particularly for women during the periconceptional period (around conception time) and pregnancy.
From the Glass to the Fetal Brain
Alcohol consumed by a pregnant woman easily crosses the placental barrier and travels via the fetal bloodstream, which then reaches the developing organs of her fetus.
The fetal brain is highly sensitive to alcohol. Permanent neuronal damage results when the fetal brain is exposed to alcohol, even in low amounts.
The only safe behavior is total abstinence of alcoholic beverages, at least three months before conception. There is no minimum, safe amount of alcohol.
Effects of Alcohol During Pregnancy
The damaging effects of a maternal alcohol consumption and subsequent fetal exposure to said consumption are undisputed. These are some of the most prominent effects:
Higher risk of birth defects: Alcohol consumption causes folate deficiency, which is a well known risk factor for birth defects. Because of this and other mechanisms, even low sporadic doses of alcohol consumption during pregnancy may increase the risk of congenital anomalies in the offspring, according to research performed the Instituto de Salud Carlos III of Madrid (Spain).
Mental Retardation: Alcohol consumption during pregnancy is a major cause of mental retardation, hyperactivity and learning disabilities in Western countries.
Increased risk of leukemia in children: Children born to mothers who drank alcohol have a 44% increased risk of leukemia, the most frequently occurring cancer in children.
For each additional alcoholic drink per week that the mother consumed during pregnancy, the risk of leukemia to the child increased by 24%.
Higher risk of miscarriage and pre and postnatal growth retardation.
Fetal alcoholic syndrome: Identified in 1973, it is, perhaps, the best documented consequence of drinking alcohol during pregnancy. It affects one out of 750 births. Brain damage, mental retardation, and facial malformations are its main characteristics.
-By Dr. George D. Pamplona-Roger