January is Birth Defect Prevention and Awareness Month and a perfect time to learn more about what you can do to avoid birth defects.
Many birth defects occur during the early weeks of pregnancy, some of which can have lifelong effects and are a major cause of infant mortality.
Testing for birth defects
Usually between the 16th and 18th weeks of pregnancy (and sometimes up to the 22nd week), you will be offered a screening called alpha-fetoprotein (AFP) screening. This test involves drawing blood from mom, with screening results usually available in one to two weeks.
The results are used along with other information, such as the mother’s age, any existing health problems or history of congenital diseases, and what medications or drugs she may be taking to determine the risk for birth defects.
High levels of alpha-fetoprotein may indicate a neural tube defect or problems with the baby’s esophagus or intestines. Low levels may indicate a genetic issue such as Down syndrome or Edwards syndrome. This screening test is not a diagnosis, but indicates there is a risk of these issues, and further testing may be needed.
Even with positive results, only 1 in 16 to 1 in 33 infants may actually have a neural tube defect or other issue. If results are positive, a second AFP test may be obtained, with an ultrasound. Further testing might also include an amniocentesis.
What you can do
Taking at least 400 mcg of folic acid daily, before and during pregnancy, has been shown to decrease the risk of neural tube defects. Folic acid, a B vitamin, is added to many cereals, breads, pastas and rice. You may also receive this nutrient through beans, peas, orange juice, broccoli or green leafy vegetables. Check the nutritional label of foods to see if they meet this important nutrient requirement.
Even if you don’t plan to get pregnant, be sure you receive the recommended daily requirement to help your body make new cells every day. Be sure you are as healthy as possible to begin your pregnancy and to decrease your baby’s risk of birth defects.