Minimizing the Impact of Birth Defects


By Heather Bennett

Getting the news that you’re pregnant can be wonderful, yet scary. There’s a roller coaster of feelings that can come with it—excitement, fear, happiness and anxiety. Parents to be all want to do what’s best for their baby before and after he or she enters the world. Genetics isn’t something we can control, but there are precautions we can take to prevent birth defects.

A baby is born every 4.5 minutes with a birth defect. Babies impacted by birth defects are 1 in 33 or 120,000 a year. Twenty percent of infant deaths are caused by birth defects annually. A variety of things can cause birth defects. Genetics can be one factor, but our behavior and environment can also have an impact. As a parent to be you can help minimize the impact of birth defects of your unborn child and possibly prevent them.

Birth defects can be functional or structural. Structural defects can be more physically noticeable and have to do with the development and structure of the body such as missing or misshaped heart valves, spina bifida, Down syndrome, cleft palate or clubfoot. Functional birth defects are related to the systems of the body such as immune, endocrine and neurological systems. These types of birth defects include blindness, deafness, Rett Syndrome, Autism, autoimmune disease, ADD and ADHD.

Many babies born with some of these defects can grow up to live full, healthy adult lives. But some can cause severe and long-lasting health issues. While birth defects can be common, it is important to be proactive in preventing them and minimizing risk by taking the proper precautions.

Some great practices are to follow a proper hygiene regiment, avoid insect bites, such as mosquitos (who can carry viruses like West Nile or Zika), and get vaccinated against the flu and whooping cough. Expecting mothers should also speak to their doctors about family health history and reproductive healthcare.

Mothers to be should also avoid smoking, drugs and alcohol. The use of these substances can lead to fetal alcohol spectrum disorders and neonatal abstinence syndrome, greatly increasing the chances of a child being born with a birth defect. While these are not birth defects, they can lead to premature birth, learning disabilities, speech or language delays, low birth weight, poor memory, poor judgment skills and hyperactive behavior. Alcohol can cause problems for a developing baby throughout pregnancy and there really is no safe amount or time to drink when pregnant. It’s never too late to stop, because brain growth continues throughout pregnancy. Drug use during pregnancy can lead a baby to experience withdrawal symptoms when they are born. Neonatal abstinence syndrome is when a child experiences withdrawal at birth due to exposure to certain substances, including opioids, while they were still in the womb.

While we strive to do what is best for our children while they are still developing in the womb, sometimes even our best efforts can’t stop us from having a child with a birth defect. All we can do is try, and when our child is born, love, celebrate and accept them for who they are, obtain support and educate ourselves on how we can best care for them going forward.

For more in-depth information on steps to take as a parent of a child impacted by one of these things, you can visit: The Emerald Coast Children’s Advocacy Center outreach and prevention team works continually to bring awareness to this topic. Visit or find them on Facebook and Instagram. As always, if abuse is suspected, call the anonymous Florida Abuse Hotline at 1-800-96-ABUSE.

Information from:,, and