Why Improved Pre-Pregnancy Health is the Key for Reducing Birth Defects

Posted January 10, 2017 by Josh Grant

Young Woman Talking To Her Doctor
Women's health and pregnancy planning can help prevent birth defects.

In the national effort to reduce infant mortality, special attention has to be paid to the leading cause–birth defects. Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows that 3 percent of newborns in the United States every year have birth defects, and that 20 percent of all infant deaths can be attributed to these conditions.

While it is impossible to completely prevent all birth defects, focusing on health before pregnancy is the best measure for reducing the risks of some birth defects, as well as other concerns that can affect the health of a new mother and her children. As a result, pregnancy planning and clear, effective communication with healthcare providers are critical for all families. 

The Power of Conversation
Preconception health and health plans for women can start with a single question -- “Would you like to become pregnant in the next year?” When providers frame the possibility of a pregnancy within a year, women can better contextualize that outcome with their other goals and lifestyles.

“The answer–be it a definitive yes or no, or uncertainty–provides guidance for women and their healthcare providers on what health goals should be reached and what type of treatment needs to be undertaken to minimize the risks associated with pregnancy,” says Pat Heinrich, NICHQ Executive Project Director of the national Infant Mortality CoIIN initiative.

For patients who want to become pregnant in the next year, there are some immediate steps to take to reduce the risk of birth defects. First, women who are taking medications that can prevent the proper development of a fetus can be given prescriptions for alternative treatment options. This can also lead to recommendations on avoiding alcohol, some over-the-counter medicines and illicit drugs, which can affect fetal development.

Early conversations with women who wish to become pregnant allow providers to show how other health concerns relate to outcomes for the patients and their future children. For instance, women with chronic conditions such as asthma and diabetes require specific courses of action in order to minimize risks during the pregnancy.

These dialogues are equally important for women who have no pregnancy plans or want to wait more than a year before trying to conceive.

“Preconception health is not only about the health of moms and mothers-to-be: It’s about all women and their health,” says Sarah Verbiest, Director of the National Preconception Health & Health Care Initiative (PCHHC). “And given that 45 percent of pregnancies in the U.S. are unintended, helping these patients improve their health overall minimizes complications and the risk of birth defects should they become pregnant.”

PCHHC recently launched the first national consumer-focused preconception resource and campaign, Show Your Love, which is designed specifically to support young women and families become healthier BEFORE pregnancy.

 Early conversations about pregnancy also gives time to consider genetics. Geneticists and genetic counselors can screen future parents for any hereditary traits that could lead to health concerns for their children. These medical professionals also can recommend support and treatment options to improve health outcomes over the course of conception and for future pregnancies.

Beyond genes, environmental factors, the age of the parents and unknown causes can also influence fetal development. The more that providers and patients engage each other and share information and concerns, the greater the possibility that potential defects can be found during conception and appropriate treatment options and support can be implemented before birth.

“As further research is conducted into birth defects and their causes, the preconception period for women who want to become pregnant is the prime opportunity to address known influences,” says Heinrich. “There are no known ways to prevent birth defects, but preventative measures and improving maternal health increase the likelihood of healthy development for babies and positive outcomes for new families.” 

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