• Children's Center

    Women’s Wellness: Folic acids and other ways to help avoid birth defects

a Caucasian pregnant woman with her eyes closed, sleeping in a bed with white sheets and pillow, resting her hand on her stomach

Every 4½ minutes a baby is born with a birth defect in the U.S. and birth defects happen in about 3 percent to 4 percent of pregnancies.

These are figures that shouldn’t alarm future parents, but as January is recognized as National Birth Defects Prevention Month, they can remind women to care for their bodies during pregnancy.

"Truly, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, so see your health care provider so you can work together for your best health," explains Dr. Dennis Costakos, a neonatologist at Mayo Clinic Health System Franciscan Healthcare in La Crosse.

"Neural tube defects are birth defects. Examples include spina bifida — caused by improper formation of the spinal cord and tissues — or anencephaly, which relates to improper development of the brain," adds Dr. Costakos. "Luckily, these defects can be prevented for many babies if the mother receives prenatal vitamins with folic acid, and a diet with natural folate and folate-fortified food."

While you can't prevent all birth defects, Dr. Costakos offers these steps to increase a woman’s chance of having a healthy baby:

  • Be sure to take 400 micrograms (mcg) of folic acid every day.
  • "Folic acid is very important because it can help prevent some major birth defects of the baby's brain and spine," Dr. Costakos stresses. "Hispanic women are more likely to have a child born with a neural tube defect compared to other ethnic groups in the U.S. If I have one message for all women, it would be 'Ladies, don’t leave home without it.'" 
  • Book a visit with your health care provider before stopping or starting any medicine.
  • There are often benefits to continuing treatment throughout pregnancy. "Discussing a treatment plan before a pregnancy allows a woman and her health care provider to weigh the pros and cons of all options to keep mom and baby as healthy as possible," says Dr. Costakos. 
  • Become up to date with all vaccines, including the flu shot.
  • Having the right vaccinations, such as the flu and Tdap vaccines, at the right time during pregnancy can help keep a woman and her baby healthy.
  • Before you get pregnant, try to reach a healthy weight.
  • Obesity increases the risk for several serious birth defects and other pregnancy complications.
  • Boost your health by avoiding harmful substances during pregnancy, such as alcohol, tobacco and other drugs.
  • There is no known safe amount of alcohol during pregnancy, and its exposure can cause major birth defects.
  • Smoking during pregnancy can cause dangerous damage to the placenta and/or reach baby's bloodstream.
  • The opioid addiction epidemic hasn’t helped either. "Far too many babies in the nation have been delivered prematurely, born with neonatal abstinence syndrome, or have needed drug withdrawal treatments as babies," says Dr. Costakos.

"Taking these preventative steps can go a long ways to a joyous and happy pregnancy for you and your child," says Dr. Costakos.