National Birth Defects Prevention Month

Jan. 11, 2011 at midnight
Updated Jan. 10, 2011 at 7:11 p.m.

By Elizabeth Sommerfeld

January is National Birth Defects Prevention Month. How does that relate to nutrition and diet? Some birth defects aren't preventable, but others may be. Diabetes during pregnancy can cause some serious birth defects and even fetal death if not well controlled during pregnancy. According to the Department of Health and Human Services, if blood sugars are poorly controlled during the first trimester or even before pregnancy, women with type one diabetes can have major birth defects in 5 percent to 10 percent of pregnancies and spontaneous abortions in 15 percent to 20 percent of pregnancies. For those with any type of diabetes during pregnancy, poorly controlled blood sugars during the second and third trimesters of pregnancy can result in excessively large babies, posing a risk to both mother and child. Often, these babies will require extra care immediately after delivery to help control blood sugar levels.

Other birth defects that can be influenced by nutrition are neural tube defects, such as spina bifida and anencephaly. The Centers for Disease Control report that Hispanic babies are 1.5 to 2 times more likely than others in the U.S. to be born with a NTD as they appear to consume the least amount of folic acid compared to other ethnic and racial groups. If folic acid is taken before and during pregnancy, it has been shown to help prevent 50 percent to 70 percent of serious birth defects affecting the spine and brain. The recommended amount is 400 micrograms folic acid every day.

Fetal alcohol syndrome is also a birth defect that is related to nutrition. According to the National Birth Defects Prevention Network, one in 1,000 children in the United States is born each year with FAS. However, there are estimates that as many as ten times that many children are born with other prenatal alcohol-related conditions. FAS is a leading cause of mental retardation and is preventable. While one in every eight pregnant woman reports some alcohol use during pregnancy, there is no "safe" level of alcohol to drink while pregnant so it is recommended to avoid alcohol during pregnancy.

The following are basic tips recommended by multiple agencies to help prevent birth defects:

Take a vitamin with 400 micrograms (mcg) folic acid every day.

Avoid alcohol, tobacco and street drugs.

Keep hands clean by washing them often with soap and water to prevent infections.

See a health care professional regularly. Talk with the health care professional about any medical problems and medicine use (both prescription and over-the-counter).

Ask about avoiding any substances at work or at home that might be harmful to a developing baby.

Eat a healthy, well-balanced diet.

Avoid unpasteurized (raw) milk and foods made from it.

Avoid eating raw or undercooked meat.

For more information, check out,, or

Elizabeth Sommerfeld is a registered and licensed dietitian and has a master of science degree. Send questions or comments to



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