Birth defects can be fatal. An estimated 240,000 newborns die worldwide within 28 days of birth every year due to birth defects.
Birth defects can be fatal later in life, too. They can cause a further 170,000 deaths of children between the ages of 1 month and 5 years. January is a time to raise awareness about birth defects to improve the daily lives of those living with these conditions.
Prevention and screening for birth defects
Most defects can’t be prevented, but it’s important to catch birth defects as soon as possible to prepare for your child’s life with the condition and to prevent further complications. The most common severe birth defects, including Down syndrome, lead to long-term disability. The common causes of birth defects are genetics, complications from infections, or environmental factors.
To help prevent birth defects in the baby’s brain and spine (anencephaly and spina bifida), make sure that you get enough folic acid, 400 mcg daily, during pregnancy. Be sure to prevent infections that can lead to birth defects. Avoid alcohol, tobacco, and marijuana, and if you have diabetes, manage it.
Once your baby is born, make sure you monitor them for critical congenital heart defects. If your child has spina bifida, observe their bladder and kidney function. Many infants born with this defect develop kidney problems at a young age.
Living with a birth defect
Each different birth defect has its own treatment. Sometimes, medical or surgical intervention is necessary to decrease the chances of fatality. Sometimes, lifestyle changes need to be made to accommodate someone’s condition and help them live a more comfortable life.
The golden rule for birth defect treatment is early detection. The earlier the defect is found and treatment is started, the better health outcomes for the individual. For example, congenital hypothyroidism detected early can allow full physical and mental development into adulthood. If the diagnosis is missed, it could lead to serious intellectual disability.
For conditions that cause intellectual disabilities like Down Syndrome, and children with heart conditions, special education, speech therapy, and physical therapy can drastically improve their quality of life.
When your child approaches adolescence and young adulthood, it’s important for that transition to be seamless. There will be changes in insurance, and a shift from a pediatric specialist, whom they have worked with their whole life, to an adult specialist. It’s important that their new doctor is informed of their needs.
In this video from the March of Dimes, a mother recounts her experience caring for her daughter who has a birth defect. National Birth Defects Prevention Month is a time to spread the word that there are things you can do to help prevent birth defects in your baby.