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November 11, 2019

These habits can increase the risk of birth defects

Prevention Pregnancy
Habits that increase the risk of birth defects Luma Pimentel/

Drinking alcohol is linked to increased risk of congenital heart defects.

Birth defects are an ever present worry for expectant parents. 

In the United States, about 150,000 children are born with one or more birth defects every year, according to the American Pregnancy Association. And the cause of more than half of them are still not known.

Birth defects are "structural changes present at birth that can affect almost any part of the body," according to March of Dimes. They "may affect how the body looks, works or both."

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There is no way to completely prevent birth defects, but expectant mothers can take steps to reduce the risk. 

Here are some habits that increase the risk of birth defects:


Any type of alcohol you drink passes to your developing baby through the umbilical cord and can lead to congenital heart defects, which affect the development of different parts of the heart or how the child's blood flows. Drinking alcohol also increases the risk of miscarriage and stillbirth. 

There is no safe amount to drink, so health experts advise avoiding it throughout pregnancy.


Smoking during pregnancy may increase the chances that a baby is born preterm or born with a cleft lip, an opening or split in the upper lip. 

Smoking also increases the risk of congenital heart defect. In most states, congenital heart defects are a part of newborn screening.


Pregnant women should never use drugs, including marijuana – even in the states where it is legal, according to health experts. 

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that "women using marijuana for medical reasons should speak with their doctor about an alternative therapy with pregnancy-specific safety data."


Moms-to-be are eating for two. But it doesn't give them carte blanche to eat all the junk food in the house. A healthy, balanced diet is crucial for the child's proper development. Studies have linked obesity to birth defects. 

Women should talk with their obstetrician about maintaining a healthy weight throughout their pregnancy. 


Although there have not been any conclusive studies that caffeine causes birth defects in human pregnancies, experts recommend that pregnant women avoid it. The American Pregnancy Association warns that "your baby's metabolism is still maturing and cannot fully metabolize the caffeine." It also affects the baby's sleep and movement patterns.

Besides avoiding these bad habits, pregnant women should also make sure they are getting the CDC-recommended 400 micrograms of folic acid every day and that they are staying up-to-date on all their prenatal doctor's appointments. 

It also is recommended to be vigilant about managing any medical conditions, such as diabetes. Pregnant women should consult their obstetrician about the medications they are taking to see if there are any potential pregnancy-related side effects.

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