Birth Defects - Causes and Types of Birth Defects

Joy Fraught With Fear

Every parent looks forward with joy and anticipation to the birth of their baby. Yet often, in the secret places of their hearts, parents also have a fear that something may not be right with their child. The fantasies surrounding the event jump from having a healthy baby to worrying about a potential health problem. Perhaps a screening yielded the prospect of a potential birth defect and it plays on the mind. Some women, with news of a possible birth defect found in a screening will visit an abortion clinic rather than have a baby with a potential birth defect. Sadly, sometimes the screenings that indicate a birth defect are incorrect. Also, not all birth defects are severe, nor are they fatal. In most cases they can be treated immediately following the birth or even before the birth. There are, however, serious birth defects as well, some of which do not become apparent until later on.

Statistics and Causes of Birth Defects

Birth defects statistics, according to the March of Dimes, state that about 150,000 babies are born with birth defects each year in the US. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) says that 3 in 100 or 1 in about 33 babies will be born with some kind of major birth defect.

Causes of birth defects may be genetic, environmental, or they may be due to an unknown factor. Most babies born with a congenital birth defect are born to healthy parents. The cause of most birth defects is thought to be a mix of genetic and environmental factors. The types of birth defects take the form of structural defects, where a specific body part is misshapen or missing (like a clubfoot) and metabolic birth defects that are an inborn body chemistry problem.

Common Structural Birth Defects

When it comes to major structural issues, the most common birth defects are heart defects which affect 1 in 150 babies in the US. Other common birth defects that are structural in nature are spina bifida, cleft palate, clubfoot, and congenital dislocated hip. A missing or improperly formed enzyme affects 1 in 3,500 babies with metabolic defects. Even though there may not be any outward signs of a birth defect, metabolic defects are often harmful and at times can be fatal. One such metabolic birth defect is Tay-Sachs disease. It attacks the central nervous system and it is fatal. Another is phenylketonuria (PKU), a disease that affects the way the body processes protein.

Genetic Birth Defects

Genetic birth defects are caused by a faulty gene or chromosome that is passed from one or both parents to the baby. When only one parent passes the faulty gene to the baby it is called dominant inheritance and such birth defects as achondroplasia (a type of dwarfism) and Marfan syndrome (abnormally long fingers, arms, and legs) are consistent with this type of birth defect. Cystic fibrosis (CF) is a genetic defect that appears in 1 in 4 children with two parents who carry an altered form of the gene for CF. Perhaps the most common of genetic birth defects is Down syndrome, where a child is born with a third copy of chromosome #21. It produces mental retardation and facial and other physical distinctions as well as heart defects and other health problems.

Infections in Pregnancy Causes Birth Defects

There are more than 400 listed birth defects that can affect a baby. The list of birth defects includes those that are caused by infections during pregnancy. Congenital rubella syndrome (when the mother is exposed to rubella during her pregnancy) causes vision or hearing loss or both, heart defects, mental retardation, and cerebral palsy. Toxoplasmosis infection in the mother can cause eye infections severe enough to affect vision, hearing loss, learning disabilities, enlarged liver or spleen, mental retardation, and cerebral palsy in an infant. The list of birth defects associated with sexually transmitted diseases is a long one as well. It is possible to see the effects of these infections by looking at books and on the internet for birth defects pictures.

What A Mother Can Do

Many times birth defects can't be prevented but precautions before conception and during pregnancy may go a long way to protecting the unborn baby from some defects. Before becoming pregnant a woman should ensure she is properly vaccinated and that her vaccines are up to date. She should be checked for STDs and treated if necessary before conception. Folic acid taken before conception helps to prevent neural tube defects like spina bifida. Unless medications have been properly screened for safety during pregnancy, they should be avoided entirely unless necessary. If there is any history of birth defects in either the family of the mother or the father, they should be discussed with a genetic counselor to determine possibilities affecting the baby.

As with any pregnancy, a woman should not smoke and should avoid being around secondhand smoke, drinking alcohol or using drugs. She should eat a healthy diet, take prenatal vitamins, exercise regularly and get plenty of rest.

There are many different parent groups for parents of children with various birth defects. Check with the local health clinic, treatment center or online to find out more about them.

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