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Causes And Prevention Of Birth Defects

Nobody wants to have a baby with birth defects. While many such births are not in our control, can you avoid childbirth defects? Is there something the expecting parents and doctor can do to reduce the risk of birth defects in babies? Read on to find out.

Book an online appointment with Dr. Janani Saravanan for Pregnancy & Gynecology related issues.

What is a Birth Defect?

A birth defect is a structural change a baby is born with. The structural change can be in one or more parts of the body and is not limited to any specific parts of the body. These birth defects can sometimes affect the way the baby looks, develops, behaves or a combination of these.

Birth defects can vary from mild to severe depending on which part or organ of the body it affects and the level of impact. Sometimes, if the birth defect is severe and affects an important organ of the body, it can even affect the lifespan of the baby. Sometimes, the baby might need help to carry on their regular activities as they grow up.

What Causes Defects in Pregnancy?

Birth defects in pregnancies can happen at any time during the pregnancy, but are mostly caused during the first 3 months – the first trimester. Most of these defects happen during the foetus’ formative stages and some happen during the delivery time. Most of the birth defects that happen during delivery are physical defects, mainly due to the baby’s position or the way the baby is retrieved during delivery.

Sometimes it is possible to determine the exact cause of certain birth defects. However, for many, the doctors cannot be very sure of the cause as there can be more than one. It can be a combination of genetics, medications and general exposure during pregnancy. It is very difficult to be very certain of the exact cause of birth defects in many cases.

What are 3 Causes of Birth Defects?

The three main causes of birth defects are:

  1. Genetic Defects – We all receive two sets of genes, one from each parent. A small defect in any of them can result in a birth defect. Sometimes a part or the entire gene itself can be missing.
  2. Exposure During Pregnancy – Exposure to pollutants, chemicals, alcohol, tobacco or even medications can affect the developing foetus. Overexposure to any toxic substance in any form or even certain viruses can result in a birth defect.
  3. Complications In Pregnancy – Complications such as deficiencies, health issues, insufficient or excess weight gain, infections or lack of sufficient nutrients can lead to birth defects. The age of the mother also plays an important role in the development of birth defects.

When Can You Identify Birth Defects?

It is not feasible to identify all birth defects before the baby is born. Defects like Down syndrome and chromosomal disorders may show up in the first-trimester screening which is a combination of blood tests and scans. Many genetic disorders can also be found as the doctor will look for them specifically.

Birth defects like autism or other behavioral or developmental-related defects become evident only as the child grows. Sometimes, tests can indicate the baby is at a risk of developing certain birth defects and the doctors will monitor closely to identify such defects at the earliest. In other cases, the defects come to light only as the parents notice a change or delay in reaching milestones.

Can You Avoid Birth Defects During Pregnancy?

You cannot prevent or avoid all birth defects. As mentioned above, some of the defects are noticeable only as the child grows. If the baby or the mother is in the high-risk category, certain steps can reduce the risk of developing birth defects.

You can however reduce the risk of birth defects by:

  • Being proactive
  • Staying fit
  • Maintaining a good well-balanced diet
  • Avoiding unhealthy indulgences
  • Following the doctor’s instructions
  • Being careful while moving around physically
  • Keeping your doctor informed about genetic defects and issues if any

How to Avoid Birth Defects During Pregnancy

While there is no guarantee that one can completely avoid birth defects in their baby, especially if the baby is in the high-risk category, the pregnant mother can do things to reduce such risks.

Here are some precautions to follow during pregnancy, to reduce the risk of birth defects:

  1. Meet your doctor regularly for your check-ups without missing any tests or scans. These tests and scans are timely checkpoints to detect birth defects at the earliest.
  2. Ensure you take all your medications as prescribed as missing them can lead to deficiencies and defects eventually. Folic acid is one such important nutrient that can reduce the risk of birth defects to a great extent.
  3. Avoid drinking alcohol or consuming tobacco in any form. While certain studies show that limited intake of alcohol on occasion will not affect the baby, many doctors suggest avoiding alcohol and tobacco completely.
  4. Never take any medications without a prescription and without confirming with your obstetrician. Only they know what medications you are on and how your body is responding to them. Consuming over-the-counter medicines that promise to make the foetus healthy can in fact be dangerous when combined with certain medications.
  5. Be cautious and maintain personal hygiene to avoid any sort of infection during pregnancy. infections like E-Coli or even high fever can impact the foetus in the womb.
  6. If you are suffering from medical conditions like hypertension or diabetes during pregnancy, ensure you alter your lifestyle to keep them under control. Excess sugar in the blood or very high blood pressure can lead to birth defects.


You cannot prevent or avoid all birth defects. Sometimes, despite all the clear tests and scans, a baby can have a birth defect. It is definitely very challenging to bring up a child with birth defects. Finding the right doctors and support groups can help both the child and the family handle the defect in a better manner.


1. Are birth defects in babies hereditary?

Not always. Sometimes birth defects can be due to environmental factors or due to some infection the mother picked during pregnancy.

2. What is a preventable cause of birth defects?

Birth defects caused due to environmental exposure can be avoided to a great extent. Keeping the pregnant mother away from these environmental factors will reduce the risk of infections and birth defects.

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