Hesperian Health Guides

Prevention of Birth Defects

It is not possible to prevent all birth defects. Some babies form differently inside the womb and no one knows why. But many birth defects can be prevented. For ways to make it less likely that children will be born with birth defects, see Chapter 3. To reduce the chances of having birth defects, pregnant women must stay in good health and avoid certain dangers:

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  • Eat well during pregnancy. Eating enough good food gives strength, prevents infection, builds a healthy baby and helps prevent too much bleeding during birth. Be sure to eat food that has enough folic acid. (See Where There Is No Doctor, Chapter 11 and Where Women Have No Doctor.)
  • Avoid medicines and drugs during pregnancy unless you are sure they will not damage the baby. (Vitamins, some vaccinations, some antacids, and iron in the correct dose are alright.) Alcohol and tobacco during pregnancy can also damage the developing child.
  • Avoid contact with chemicals, pesticides and other poisons.. If a pregnant woman’s husband or family members must use pesticides or poisons, they should wash their own clothes, and protect the pregnant woman from the chemicals.
  • Avoid marrying close relatives. When close family members have children together, the children are much more likely to have birth defects.
  • If you already have one or more children with a birth defect, it is more likely you may have another, so you might consider not having more.
  • While pregnant, stay far away from anyone with German measles (rubella) if you have never had it. If you are not pregnant, try to catch it before you get pregnant. Vaccines give protection against German measles but you should not become pregnant for 1 month after rubella immunization.
  • Getting syphilis or herpes when you are pregnant can cause the baby to be born with birth defects. Make sure you and your partner are tested and treated early for sexually transmitted infections.
  • Consider not having more children after age 35 or 40, especially if both parents are these ages, or if you have had one child with Down syndrome, since the chance of having another is increased.

Most birth defects can be prevented when women can afford good food to eat, when they do not have to work with toxic chemicals, and when they have good health care.

Birth defects should not be treated as a problem for families to deal with on their own. The causes of birth defects affect the whole community. To prevent birth defects, we must change the world we live in so that it is safer for women and families.

This page was updated:21 Nov 2019