Preventing Birth Defects

Preventing Birth Defects Baby

Schedule a Preconception Doctor’s Visit
Consume Enough Folic Acid
Avoid Alcohol, Street Drugs and Tobacco
Prevent Infections
Manage Medications
Control Chronic Conditions
Eat Right and Maintain a Healthy Weight
Avoid Other Harmful Substances
Learn About Genetics
See a Doctor Regularly
Learn More


Although the causes of many birth defects are still unknown, there are a few steps that women can take to reduce their chances of having a baby with a birth defect.



Female nurse with stethoscope

Schedule a Preconception Doctor’s Visit:

Women should see their health care provider BEFORE they get pregnant. This is called preconception care. Many birth defects occur in the very early weeks of pregnancy before a woman has missed her first menstrual period, so it is important that she see her doctor to discuss medical and family history before she conceives. This is especially important for women who have had a previous child with birth defects. Interconception care provides a unique opportunity to address specific risk factors that may have contributed to previous poor pregnancy outcomes. See below for information about neural tube defect recurrence prevention.

>>learn more about preconception doctor’s visits from CDC

Woman with folic acid supplements

Consume Enough Folic Acid:

If a woman has enough folic acid in her body before and during pregnancy, it can help prevent major birth defects of her baby’s brain and spine. These birth defects are called neural tube defects or NTDs. Research shows that if all women of child bearing age consumed the recommended amount of folic acid, 70% of NTDs could be prevented.

>>learn more about folic acid from CDC
>>visit the National Council on Folic Acid to learn more

Women who have had a previous NTD-affected pregnancy and are planning another pregnancy should consult their physician about consuming 4 milligrams (4,000 micrograms) of folic acid every day for NTD recurrence prevention. That is 10 times the recommended amount for most other women.

>>click here for a brochure about NTD recurrence prevention in English (245K PDF) and Spanish (237K PDF) (Viewing Information).

No smoking sign

Avoid Alcohol, Street Drugs, and Tobacco:

These substances can cause birth defects. Ideally, a woman should stop using these substances before she becomes pregnant, but it is never too late to quit.

No amount of alcohol is known to be safe for the developing fetus. Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS) (98K PDF, Viewing Information) is the leading known preventable cause of mental retardation in the United States. Children with FAS have permanent mental and behavioral problems. They often have distinctly malformed facial features.

>>learn more information about alcohol consumption during pregnancy from the CDC
>>learn more about Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS) from the National Organization on FAS

Street drugs such as cocaine and marijuana, when taken by a pregnant woman, are delivered to her unborn baby via the blood supply through the umbilical cord. These and most other illegal drugs pass easily to the fetus and therefore must be avoided.

>>learn more information about the use of street drugs during pregnancy from the American Pregnancy Association

Smoking may lower the oxygen available to the baby, which can cause the baby to grow more slowly and gain less weight in the womb. In the United States, about 1 in 8 women smokes during pregnancy.

>>learn more information about smoking during pregnancy from March of Dimes
>>find more information about other harmful substances below

Woman blowing her nose

Prevent Infections:

Germs that cause only mild or no symptoms at all in adults can be deadly to the unborn fetus. Women of childbearing age can avoid some of these by making sure that all of their immunizations are up-to-date before becoming pregnant. Other harmful germs and parasites can be avoided by using good hygiene.

>>listen to a podcast about preventing infections from CDC
>>read about pregnancy and the flu from March of Dimes

Pill bottle

Manage Medications:

Some medications are shown to be harmful to the unborn fetus. Others are necessary for a mother to remain healthy. In order to find out what medications you should and should not be taking, talk to your physician. Do not start or stop taking new medications (including over the counter and herbal remedies) without first talking with your physician.

>>find more information about medication management from CDC

>>find more information about safe medications from CDC

Blood glucose test

Control Chronic Conditions:

Women who have conditions like diabetes, epilepsy, or obesity should talk to their health care provider about measures to take if they are considering pregnancy, or if they discover that they are pregnant. Sometimes better medication or a different dosage is recommended for treating the condition in pregnancy.

>>learn more information about diabetes and pregnancy from CDC
>>learn more information about epilepsy and pregnancy from the Mayo Clinic

Various types of fruit


Eat Right and Maintain a Healthy Weight:

Getting enough folic acid and eating well balanced and nutritional meals provides a developing baby with the nutritional needs they need to grow properly.

Generally, women who are obese before pregnancy are at a higher risk for complications during their pregnancy. Additionally, the risk for some serious birth defects is increased in women who are obese. Talk with a doctor about ways to reach and maintain a healthy weight before and during your pregnancy.  

>>learn more information about obesity and pregnancy from March of Dimes

Open can of paint with paintbrush

Avoid other harmful substances:

Because most substances can pass through the placenta into the fetus’ blood supply, mothers-to-be should avoid exposure to anything toxic. This includes fumes from strong household chemicals such as gasoline, paints, paint thinner, and pesticides; lead in some paints; and water from contaminated sources. You can look up health and safety information on common household products at the National Library of Medicine’s Household Products Database, and you can call the Texas Teratogen Information Service at 1-855-884-7248 for more information.

>>learn more about other harmful substances to avoid during pregnancy from March of Dimes

DNA strand

Learn About Genetics:

Genetic counseling may be appropriate if you have a family history of birth defects, a previous pregnancy that resulted in a birth defects, or you are 35 years of age or older. Individuals should consult their physician and when appropriate, seek genetic counseling.

>>learn more about genetic counseling and pregnancy from American Pregnancy Association

Person with a blood pressure cuff

See a Doctor Regularly:

Even though you may feel healthy, it is important to see your doctor regularly. Doing this can help catch any complications early on. Certain women are at higher risk than others if they have already had a baby with a birth defect. Getting proper care can address any risk factors that may have contributed to poor pregnancy outcomes from a previous pregnancy.

>>See a brochure about services available for children with special needs in English (299K PDF) or Spanish (318K PDF) (Viewing Information)
>>learn more about services available for children with special needs