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The top things to know about birth defects

By Summa Published: February 16, 2017

Every 4 ½ minutes, a baby is born with a birth defect in the United States. Here are 10 things you should know about these prevalent conditions.

  • Birth defects affect 1 in 33 babies every year. For many, there is no family history of the condition. Minor anomalies are more frequent. Birth defects can be isolated or present in a characteristic combination or pattern.
  • Some birth defects can be serious, even life-threatening. In the U.S., about 1 in 5 deaths of babies before their first birthday is caused by birth defects. Birth defects can be classified as major and minor. Major birth defects are those that have medical and/or social implications. These often require surgical repair. Examples are cardiac defects and cleft lip and palate. Minor malformations have mostly cosmetic significance. They rarely are medically significant or require surgical intervention. They represent part of the normal variation in the general population. Examples of minor anomalies include ear tags.
  • Some birth defects aren’t diagnosed until the baby is home.
  • Some birth defects can be diagnosed before birth. Tests like an ultrasound and amniocentesis can detect some birth defects before birth.
  • Birth defects are costly. They can place a large financial burden on families and the government.
  • Women should take folic acid daily starting in her teens to help prevent defects in a baby’s brain or spine early in pregnancy.
  • The cause of most birth defects in unknown. Genetics, alcohol and other drugs as well as exposure to chemicals and infections during pregnancy can all be causes.
  • Women can keep their unborn babies safe from infections by washing their hands often, not handling pets and avoiding raw meat, uncooked eggs and unwashed vegetables.
  • There is no known safe amount of alcohol or safe time to drink during pregnancy, so pregnant women should avoid all alcohol.

Some birth defects can be prevented. Women can take important steps before and during pregnancy to help, including taking folic acid prior to pregnancy, having regular checkups, keeping chronic diseases under control (like blood sugar control in diabetes) and not using alcohol.

Angela Silber, M.D., FACOG
Chief of Maternal-Fetal Medicine 
Summa Health System - Akron Campus



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