While many birth defects cannot be prevented, women can reduce their risks of having a baby born with a birth defect by adopting important health-related behaviors before and during pregnancy.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), about one in every 33 babies is born with a birth defect. Birth defects can vary from mild to severe and can affect almost any part of the body.
While many birth defects cannot be prevented, women can reduce their risks of having a baby born with a birth defect by adopting important health-related behaviors before and during pregnancy. Learn how to be your healthiest self before and during pregnancy and reduce your baby’s risk for certain birth defects.
Tips for a Healthy Pregnancy
If you’re thinking about having a baby or you’re currently pregnant, check out these healthy behaviors you can implement to benefit both you and your baby!
- Get enough folic acid. The CDC recommends women of reproductive age should take 400 micrograms of folic acid every day. When you take folic acid before and during early pregnancy, it can help prevent certain major birth defects to your baby’s brain and spine. While you can find folate and folic acid in certain foods, it’s hard to get enough through diet alone. You can take a multivitamin to ensure you’re getting the recommended 400 micrograms. The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) offers prenatal vitamins as part of its maternity health care benefits.
- Get up to date on your vaccines. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, certain vaccines, such as the COVID-19 vaccine, the flu shot and the whooping cough vaccine, can help protect both you and your baby from vaccine-preventable diseases. The antibodies you pass on to your baby can provide protection in their first few months of life when they’re too young to get vaccinated. The CDC provides additional information about the safety and importance of various vaccines during pregnancy.
- Schedule an appointment with your health care provider. If you’re thinking about getting pregnant, or if you’re already pregnant, be sure to talk to your health care provider. You can discuss important topics such as your prenatal care, the risks and benefits of any medications you’re currently taking during pregnancy, your mental health, your family medical history, access to services or resources you may need, and much more.
- Pay attention to your mental health. Trying to become pregnant, being pregnant, and having a baby can have a big impact on your mental health and wellness. Be open and honest with your health care providers about how you’re feeling – without feeling ashamed or guilty if you’re not always happy. Share aspects of your military Service that may have an impact on your mental health during pregnancy such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or military sexual trauma. VA has clinicians who specialize in reproductive mental health and will work with you to meet your mental health care needs during pregnancy, helping you find the safest and most effective treatment options.
- Make healthy lifestyle choices. Choose healthy foods that nourish you and your baby, like these foods recommended by the Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion. In addition, be sure to move your body in safe and healthy ways. Work with your health care provider to establish a healthy weight and ask for help maintaining it. Obesity can put you at higher risk for complications during pregnancy.
- Avoid harmful substances. Research shows that the use of tobacco, alcohol or illicit drugs or the misuse of prescription drugs by pregnant women can have severe health consequences for infants. These substances can increase your risk for miscarriage, preterm birth, stillbirth and low birth weight, as well as certain birth defects such as fetal alcohol spectrum disorders. If you’re dealing with a substance use problem, get the treatment you and your baby deserve. VA has several resources available for substance use disorder.
- Protect yourself from certain infections. Infections such as group B streptococcus, the Zika virus, listeria and more can result in serious illness and birth defects. The CDC provides a detailed list of how to protect yourself from different infections, including tips such as washing your hands, avoiding certain foods, getting tested for sexually transmitted diseases and more.
- Keep your diabetes under control. Poor control of your diabetes during pregnancy can result in serious complications for you and also increase the chances of certain birth defects. In addition, high blood sugar levels throughout pregnancy can increase your baby’s risk for developing obesity or type 2 diabetes in the future. Talk to your health care provider to make sure you have a good plan for managing your diabetes during pregnancy, including consistent monitoring of your blood sugar levels, following a healthy eating plan, being physically active and more.
- The National Maternal Mental Health Hotline can be reached 24/7 at 1-833-852-6262. You can talk to a counselor and receive free and confidential mental health support before, during and after pregnancy.
- The CDC’s Birth Defects page offers a lot of helpful resources, including information on specific birth defects, research and data on birth defects, birth defect prevention and much more. The CDC also offers podcasts and videos on birth defects and prevention.
- VA offers a wide range of maternity care services to help you throughout your entire pregnancy, delivery and postpartum period.
- VA maternity care services include full physical exams and lab tests, prenatal vitamins, prenatal screening and education, genetic tests and ultrasounds, and more.
- VA’s Maternity Care Coordinators can answer your questions throughout your pregnancy, help you navigate health care services, connect you to community resources and more.
- VA also offers many resources to address your pre-pregnancy health, including mental health resources, information about intimate partner violence, infertility services and much more.
- To learn more about what services VA covers, check out this VA maternity care brochure.
While we cannot control everything that happens during pregnancy, knowing what steps you can take to be your healthiest self during pregnancy is an important part of every woman’s journey toward motherhood.