Birth defects are structural changes present at birth that can affect almost any part or parts of the body (e.g., heart, brain, foot). They may affect how the body looks, works, or both. Birth defects can vary from mild to severe. The well-being of each child affected with a birth defect depends mostly on which organ or body part is involved and how much it is affected.
How to Identify Birth Defects?
A birth defect can be found before birth, at birth, or any time after birth. Most birth defects are found within the first year of life. Some birth defects (such as cleft lip) are easy to see, but others (such as heart defects or hearing loss) are found using special tests, such as echocardiograms (an ultrasound picture of the heart), x-rays or hearing tests. Some birth defects are
Cleft lip and cleft palate: Cleft lip and cleft palate are birth defects in a baby’s lip and mouth. Usually, babies can have surgery to repair cleft lip or cleft palate. They may need more surgery, special dental care and speech therapy as they get older. Speech therapy is therapy to teach your child how to speak more clearly or communicate in other ways.
Clubfoot: Clubfoot is a birth defect of the foot. It’s when a baby’s foot turns inward so that the bottom of the foot faces sideways or even up. Clubfoot doesn’t improve without treatment. Treatment may include pointing, stretching, casting the foot and using braces. With early treatment, most children with clubfoot can walk, run and play without pain.
Congenital heart defects (CHDs): These are heart conditions that a baby is born with. They can affect the heart’s shape or how it works or both. CHDs are the most common types of birth defects. They can be mild or serious. Critical congenital heart defects (also called critical CHDs or critical congenital heart disease) are the most serious CHDs. Babies with critical CHDs need surgery or other treatment within the first year of life. Without treatment, critical CHDs can cause serious health problems and death.
Gastroschisis: This is a birth defect of the abdominal (belly) wall. A baby is born with his intestines, and sometimes other organs, outside of the body. Gastroschisis happens when the muscles that make up the abdominal wall don’t connect properly, forming a hole beside the belly button. A baby with gastroschisis needs surgery soon after birth to put his organs back in place and repair the hole.
Hearing loss: This is a common birth defect that can affect a baby’s ability to develop speech, language and social skills. Hearing loss can happen when any part of the ear isn’t working in the usual way. Treatment depends on the cause of the hearing loss and whether hearing loss is mild or severe. Some babies with hearing loss may need hearing aids, medicine, surgery or speech therapy.
Microcephaly: Microcephaly is when a baby’s head is smaller than expected, compared to babies of the same sex and age. Babies with mild microcephaly often don’t have problems other than small head size. A baby with severe microcephaly has a head that’s much smaller than expected and may have more serious health problems. Severe microcephaly can happen if a baby’s brain doesn’t develop properly during pregnancy or if the brain starts to develop correctly but is damaged during pregnancy. Babies with severe microcephaly may need special care and treatment, like surgery. Some need medicines to treat seizures or other health problems.
Neural tube defects (NTDs): NTDs are birth defects of the brain, spine (backbone) and spinal cord. The spinal cord carries signals back and forth between your body and your brain. The most common NTD is spina bifida. Spina bifida happens when the spinal cord or bones in the spine don’t form correctly, leaving a gap or opening. Spina bifida can cause serious health problems for babies, like fluid on the brain and being paralyzed. Babies with spina bifida may need surgery or other special treatments.
Birth defects can occur during any stage of pregnancy. Most birth defects occur in the first 3 months of pregnancy, when the organs of the baby are forming. This is a very important stage of development. However, some birth defects occur later in pregnancy. During the last six months of pregnancy, the tissues and organs continue to grow and develop.
For some birth defects, like fetal alcohol syndrome, we know the cause. But for most birth defects, we don’t know what causes them. For most birth defects, we think they are caused by a complex mix of factors. These factors include our genes (information inherited from our parents), our behaviours, and things in the environment. But, we don’t fully understand how these factors might work together to cause birth defects.
While we still have more work to do, we have learned a lot about birth defects through past research. For example, some things might increase the chances of having a baby with a birth defect, such as:
- Smoking, drinking alcohol, or taking certain drugs during pregnancy.
- Having certain medical conditions, such as being obese or having uncontrolled diabetes before and during pregnancy.
- Taking certain medications which are not prescribed by your health care provider.
- Having someone in your family with a birth defect. To learn more about your risk of having a baby with a birth defect, you can talk to your health care provider.
- Having an elevated body temperature due to heat exposure.
- Being an older mother, as the risk of chromosomal abnormalities increases with age.
Having one or more of these risks doesn’t mean you’ll have a pregnancy affected by a birth defect. Also, women can have a baby born with a birth defect even when they don’t have any of these risks. It is important to talk to your health care provider about what you can do to lower your risk.
Not all birth defects can be prevented. But, there are things that a woman can do before and during pregnancy to increase her chance of having a healthy baby:
- Be sure to see your healthcare provider regularly and start prenatal care as soon as you think you might be pregnant.
- Get 400 micrograms (mcg) of folic acid every day, starting at least one month before getting pregnant.
- Don’t drink alcohol or smoke.
- Talk to a healthcare provider about any medications you are taking or thinking about taking. This includes prescription and over-the-counter medications and dietary or herbal supplements. Don’t stop or start taking any type of medication without first talking with a doctor.
- Know how to prevent infections during pregnancy.
- Be proactive in identifying and treating fever when ill or after getting a vaccine. Avoid hot tubs, saunas, or other environments that might cause overheating.
- If possible, be sure any medical conditions are under control, before becoming pregnant. Some conditions, such as diabetes, can increase the risk for birth defects.