One of the things that any expecting parents should be aware of is the possibility of birth defects. These conditions are surprisingly common, even with today’s advanced medicine. Although certain steps can help prevent the occurrence of birth defects, they are still unavoidable in some cases.
Birth defects are structural or functional abnormalities that are present at birth. These conditions cause mental and/or physical disabilities in infants. Some birth defects are relatively minor and can be treated easily. Others may have serious health effects and may even lead to death. Birth defects require surgical or medical treatment, either immediately after birth or later on in life. In some cases, treatment can even occur before birth.
According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), about one in every 33 babies has a birth defect. These conditions are also the leading cause of infant death, with 1 in 5 infants dying from a birth defect. Having a birth defect also increases an infant’s risk for developing illnesses and long-term disabilities.
Types Of Birth Defects
There are numerous known birth defects, each of which falls into one of two main categories:
Structural: Structural birth defects involve a physical abnormality. Although this generally involves a particular body part, it also includes neural tube defects, which involve problems with the growth and development of the brain and spinal cord. The most common type of structural birth defects are heart defects, which affect about 1 in 150 infants according to KidsHealth.org. Some additional examples of structural birth defects include:
- Cleft palate
- Missing/misshapen valves
- Club foot
- Congenital dislocated hip
- Spina bifida
Functional: This type of birth defect involves a problem with how a body system or body part works. In many cases, these types of birth defects lead to developmental disabilities. Some of the key types of functional birth defects are:
- Nervous system and brain issues: Examples include learning disabilities, developmental disabilities, behavioral disorders, speech difficulties, convulsions, autism, and down -syndrome
- Sensory problems: Examples include cataracts, blindness, vision problems, hearing loss and deafness
- Degenerative disorders: Examples include Rett syndrome, muscular dystrophy and lysosomal disorders. These conditions are sometimes not obvious at birth and may only become apparent as a child’s health worsens.
- Metabolic disorders: Examples include hypothyroidism and phenylketonuria. These are conditions that affect body processes or chemical pathways.
Causes And Risk Factors
In most cases, there is no one definite cause of a birth defect. A mixture of genetic, behavioral and environmental factors are said to play a role in the development of a birth defect. These can include things like chromosomal irregularities, the mother contracting an infection during pregnancy or a problem in the formation of an egg or sperm involved in fertilization. In some cases, no apparent cause will be present. There are often no obvious health problems present in the parents of a baby with a birth defect.
There are several known risk factors that are linked to birth defects, including:
- A mother taking certain drugs or drinking alcohol while pregnant
- A mother taking certain medications while pregnant, such as isotretinoin
- A mother smoking while pregnant
- A pregnant woman being over the age of 35
- A history of birth defects in the family
- A pregnant woman having diabetes or obesity
It’s important to note that although birth defects may occur at any time during a pregnancy, the majority of these conditions occur during the first 3 months of pregnancy. This is the period where the organs of the baby are formed.
Although some birth defects cannot be prevented, there are many steps that all pregnant women should take to avoid those birth defects which are preventable. Some key steps to preventing birth defects include:
- Taking 400 mg of folic acid daily. If possible, women should begin taking folic acid at least one month before getting pregnant.
- Not drinking alcohol, smoking or using any illegal drugs.
- Take steps to prevent infection and stay healthy.
- Talking to a doctor about any medications the mother is taking to ensure that they are safe during pregnancy.
- Getting diabetes, obesity or any other problematic health conditions under control before becoming pregnant.
Treatment for birth defects can vary widely depending on the specific condition that an infant has. In some cases, diagnosis and treatment can begin before the baby is even born. Some of the defects which may be detected before birth are cleft lip, congenital tumors, down syndrome and congenital heart defects. Treatment after birth may include anything from surgery to physical therapy to developmental therapy. If you are pregnant or have a child with a birth defect, talk to your doctor about possible treatment options. In many cases, quick and thorough treatment can either cure the defect or make it possible for a baby to live a relatively normal life despite their condition.