What Are the Most Common Birth Defects?

Pediatrics Q&A

Good prenatal care can help to prevent some birth defects.
Good prenatal care can help to prevent some birth defects. Photo by Marcin Bania

Question: What are the most common birth defects?

Answer:

One of every 33 babies in the United States is born with a birth defect.

Although not all birth defects are serious, some birth defects can be life-threatening.

Most Common Birth Defects

Some of the most common birth defects include:

  • Chromosomal anomalies (Down Syndrome)
  • Orofacial defects (Cleft Lip / Cleft Palate)
  • Congenital Heart Defects (Atrioventricular septal defect)
  • Musculoskeletal defects (Gastroschisis)
  • Eye defects (Anophthalmia/microphthalmia)
  • Central nervous system defects (Spina bifida)
  • Gastrointestinal (Pyloric stenosis / Hirschsprung disease)
  • Genitourinary (Hypospadias)

These structural and functional birth defects might be diagnosed prenatally or in some cases, may not be noticed until after your baby is born.

Birth Defects Trends and Statistics

We have known how to prevent some birth defects for some time now, like encouraging pregnant women to take folic acid, avoid alcohol and cigarettes, and treating infections.

How has that affected the most common birth defects in recent years?

Well, thanks to the MMR vaccine, we certainly don't see infants with congenital rubella syndrome anymore. Congenital rubella commonly caused birth defects, including heart problems, cataracts, and deafness, etc., in the 1960s and 1970s.

And rates of spina bifida have been decreasing, as more women take folic acid.

Higher rates of obesity, being an older mother, and use of medications, including selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) for depression, may be linked to higher rates of some birth defects, though.

What You Need to Know About Birth Defects

In addition to getting diagnosed as soon as possible, the most important thing to know about birth defects is that some can be prevented, making it important to:

  • get healthy before getting pregnant
  • get early prenatal care, as soon as you know you are pregnant
  • start taking 400 mcg of folic acid at least one month before planning to get pregnant
  • don't drink any alcohol while pregnant, as any amount of alcohol can cause birth defects
  • don't smoke or use any street drugs while pregnant
  • discuss the risks and benefits of the medications you are taking while pregnant
  • understand how to prevent infections, especially TORCH infections that can cause birth defects while you are pregnant
  • make sure you are up-to-date on all of your vaccinations before getting pregnant

And talk to your doctor if you think that your baby is at higher risk for any birth defects.

Sources:

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Update on Overall Prevalence of Major Birth Defects--Atlanta, Georgia, 1978-2005. MMWR Morb Mortal Wkly Rep. 2008;57(1):1-5.

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