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DEAR MAYO CLINIC: I’m 26 years old, and my partner and I would like to have a baby within the next year. Are there things I can do now, before I get pregnant, that will make it more likely our baby will be healthy?
ANSWER: You’re wise to be thinking about this now. There are lifestyle steps you can take before you conceive that can increase the chances of having a healthy baby. It’s also a good idea to meet with your health care provider to review your health history, discuss any medical conditions you have and review factors that could potentially raise your baby’s risk for a birth defect.
Birth defects affect 1 in every 33 babies born in the U.S. each year. Birth defects range from mild to severe and can affect almost any part of the body. Some defects, such as Down syndrome, are triggered by problems in a baby’s chromosomes. But, in most cases, the exact cause of birth defects, such as heart problems, vision and hearing issues, and disorders of the spine and brain, cannot be pinpointed. That said, there are things you can do to help reduce the risk of birth defects.
First, take a daily multivitamin that contains at least 400 micrograms of folic acid. Folic acid helps prevent defects, such as spina bifida, which affects the neural tube — the structure in an embryo that eventually develops into a baby’s brain and spinal cord. Taking folic acid before and during pregnancy reduces the risk for neural tube defects.
Second, schedule a preconception appointment with your health care provider. He or she can review your individual health history, as well as your family history, to identify possible areas of concern.
For example, diabetes and high blood pressure can impact pregnancy, as can the medication you take to control those disorders. Your health care provider can make adjustments before you get pregnant to ensure that the medications you take are safe for a developing fetus. At the appointment, you also can review your immunization record and make plans to get missing vaccinations before you get pregnant.
Your sexual health can impact the health of your child, as well. It is important to have regular screening for sexually transmitted infections. This also can occur at the preconception appointment with your health care provider. Infections such as genital herpes, syphilis and cytomegalovirus can cause birth defects that may include brain and spine abnormalities, cerebral palsy, hearing and vision impairments, and prematurity.
Your health care provider can talk with you about any birth defects that have affected your family, or your partner’s family, as well as genetic disorders that could be hereditary. If you have a family history of birth defects or genetic disorders, he or she may recommend you talk with a genetic counselor to gather more information and consider genetic testing.
In addition to taking folic acid and getting ready for your pregnancy by consulting with your health care provider, you can make some lifestyle choices that can help foster a healthy pregnancy.
Avoid alcohol, illicit drugs and smoking. If you smoke, stop now. Smoking during pregnancy has been linked with many health problems, including problems with the placenta, low birth weight, premature birth, miscarriage, stillbirth, and cleft lip or palate. Also, fetal alcohol spectrum is a preventable birth defect if you don’t drink alcohol during pregnancy. If you’d like help with these issues, talk with your health care provider.
If you are overweight or obese, take steps to get to a healthier weight before you become pregnant, as obesity also increases the risks of certain birth defects. Talk with your health care provider about an exercise and nutrition program to meet and maintain your goals before and during pregnancy.
As you get ready to become pregnant, try to be as healthy as possible overall. Take your multivitamin every day. Eat a healthy diet. Exercise regularly. Avoid smoking, alcohol and drug use. Get any medical conditions you have under control. If you have questions or concerns along the way, talk with your health care provider. He or she can offer assistance and guidance during this exciting time. — Deborah Miller, APRN, C.N.P., OB-GYN, Mayo Clinic, Rochester, Minnesota