Birth defects can happen in any pregnancy. They can affect even the most carefully monitored pregnancies, despite never having occurred in your family history. And because January is National Birth Defect Prevention Month, the National Birth Defects Prevention Network (NBDPN) is encouraging everyone to make healthy choices to help prevent birth defects.

The overall background risk for birth defects in the general population is 3-4% –a risk much higher than what most patients are specifically quoted for having a child with Down syndrome. (In fact, even 43-year-old women, a demographic with increased susceptibility to chromosome anomalies due to age, only have a 3.3% chance to deliver a child with Down syndrome.) Though birth defects can be due to multiple causes, including chromosome anomalies and specific genetic conditions, the inheritance of most isolated birth defects is multifactorial, meaning that they are caused by a combination of genetic and environmental factors.

While there’s nothing you can do to alter your genetic predisposition to multifactorial birth defects, you may take steps to potentially reduce the influence of your environment on your risk to have an affected child. The NBDPN has a snappy phrase to help you remember these steps: “Make a PACT for Prevention.” PACT is an acronym that stands for Plan Ahead, Avoid Harmful Substances, Choose A Healthy Lifestyle, and Talk to your Health Care Provider. Each of these is explained below.

  • Plan to take 400 micrograms of folic acid (that’s like 3.5 cups of boiled spinach) daily, prior to and throughout your pregnancy. Why? Folic acid is known to help prevent major birth defects of the brain and spine, such as spina bifida.
  • Avoid harmful substances, including tobacco, alcohol, and street drugs, which are known to interfere or disrupt fetal development.
  • Choose to actively pursue good physical and mental health.
  • Talk to your physician about necessary over-the-counter and prescription medicines to ensure they are safe during pregnancy. Similarly, be sure to discuss your family history to obtain accurate risk assessments, referrals, and screening options.

By following these steps, you can take action to manage your health and reduce the risk of having a child with a birth defect.

For more information on what you can do now for a healthier baby in the future, visit the NBDPN site.


Shannon Wieloch

Shannon Wieloch is a licensed board-certified genetic counselor at CooperGenomics. Her primary responsibility is to provide genetic counseling to CooperGenomics patients. Other professional roles include managing the genetic content on social media, supervising graduate students, and conducting research.

Prior to joining CooperGenomics, Shannon worked in cardiac research at The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and in prenatal genetic counseling at The Delaware Center for Maternal and Fetal Medicine. She received a dual B.S. in biology and psychology from The University of Pittsburgh and her M.S. in genetic counseling from Arcadia University. Her passion is to provide comprehensive genetic education to medical professionals, patients, and the general public. In her free time, she loves to travel, doodle, play board games with her girls, and take too many pictures of her cat.