Birth Defects: Answers to Your 13 Most-Asked Questions

3. What is my chance of having a baby with a birth defect?
In the United States, about three percent of babies are born with birth defects. Some women have a higher chance of having a child with a birth defect. Women over the age of 35 years have a higher chance of having a child with Down's syndrome than women who are younger. If taken when a woman is pregnant, certain drugs can increase the chance of birth defects. Also, women who smoke and use alcohol while pregnant have a higher risk of having a baby with certain birth defects. Other women have a higher chance of having a baby with a birth defect because someone in their family had a similar birth defect. To learn more about your risk of having a baby with a birth defect, you can talk with a genetic counselor. Also, to reduce your chances of having a baby with a birth defect, talk with your health care provider about any medicines that you take, do not drink alcohol or smoke and be sure to take 400 micrograms of the B vitamin folic acid every day. It is the amount of folic acid found in most multivitamins.


4. Does my risk for having a baby with a birth defect increase as I get older?
Women who are 35 years of age or older have a greater chance of having a baby with Down's syndrome. Of the known causes of mental retardation, Down's syndrome is the most common. It affects about 1 in 800 births. Down's syndrome happens when there is an extra chromosome 21 ("trisomy 21"). Scientists have not proven that other birth defects, genetic or otherwise, are linked to the mother's age.

5. Do genetic factors play a role in causing birth defects?
Yes, some birth defects "run in the family." Babies with certain types of birth defects may have an extra or a missing chromosome. Birth defects can also happen when just a piece of a chromosome is missing or if just an extra piece is added. Also, certain genes may make a fetus more sensitive to things that cause birth defects.

6. When in pregnancy do birth defects happen?
Birth defects happen before a baby is born. Inherited or genetic factors; things in the environment, such as smoking or drinking alcohol or not getting enough folic acid; and a woman's illness during pregnancy can cause birth defects. Most birth defects happen in the first three months of pregnancy, when the organs of the baby are forming. This is the most important stage of development. However, some birth defects happen later in pregnancy. During the last six months of pregnancy, the tissues and organs continue to grow and develop.

Some birth defects can be found before birth. If you want to know more about your risk of having a baby with a birth defect, contact a genetic counselor.

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