by TERESA SCHIFFER
Sponsored by Central Florida Health Care
January is National Birth Defects Awareness Month, a time for discussions about how different birth defects can affect individuals over the course of their lifespan, and what can be done to minimize the risk of these occurrences.
It’s important to understand that the term “birth defect” is used to describe a variety of conditions, also termed “congenital abnormalities.” Some of these abnormalities are minor, and can be successfully managed to allow minimal impact on the individual’s quality of life. On the other hand, some birth defects are severe enough to be considered incompatible with life and can cause spontaneous miscarriage. Between these two extremes is a spectrum of conditions causing a broad range of health issues.
Dr. Heather Wardy of Central Florida Health Care is a pediatrician dedicated to providing the best possible care for all children, including those affected by congenital abnormalities.
“A birth defect is any structural anomaly that is present at birth,” explains Wardy. “Some of the more common ones that we see are heart defects, neural tube defects that affect the brain or spinal cord, cleft lip and palate, and hypospadias.”
Spina bifida is an example of a neural tube defect that occurs when a neural tube in the spine does not fully close during a fetus’s development, resulting in damage to the spinal cord and nerves. This damage can cause physical and intellectual disabilities ranging from mild to severe. The incidence of this abnormality is roughly three babies in 10,000 in the U.S., or about 1,400 infants each year.
Although the exact causes of spina bifida are not fully understood yet, there are certain risk factors associated with having a baby born with this condition. Obesity and diabetes, some medications, and an insufficient intake of folic acid seem to increase a mother’s risk of her child developing spina bifida within the first few weeks of pregnancy.
“Any birth defect can range from mild to severe,” Wardy says. “Luckily, many of these are caught during pregnancy, during surveillance screenings done by OB/GYN providers, and we have many interventions that are available. That highlights the importance of seeking prenatal care.”
Proper medical care during pregnancy cannot prevent every case of congenital abnormalities, but it can greatly reduce the risk of a child being born with a severe birth defect. Regular prenatal screenings create opportunities for healthcare providers to intervene if a problem is found. A mother’s medical team can also supply information to help protect her health and the health of her baby.
It is important that a mom-to-be discuss all medications, vitamins, and supplements that she may be taking with her doctor or midwife to ensure that they will not have a negative impact on her pregnancy. Many medications do carry risks to a fetus, and it may be necessary to weigh those factors against the risks associated with a woman discontinuing a prescribed regimen of medication. The team at Central Florida Health Care can answer any questions you might have regarding the safety of a particular drug or supplement during pregnancy.
The health of the mother is an integral component to having a healthy pregnancy and baby. Physical activity is recommended, to a degree appropriate for the woman’s capabilities. Being active will also help to control diabetes and obesity, two conditions that can increase the risk of a child being born with a congenital abnormality. Good nutritional habits are also important in these respects.