Folic acid can prevent birth defects

By Rebecca Okashah Littlejohn, MS, CGC
Certified Genetic Counselor
The Children’s Hospital of San Antonio

January is National Birth Defects Prevention Month and the week of January 7-12 is Folic Acid Awareness Week.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC),¹ one in every 33 babies in the United States is born with a major birth defect, which is about 120,000 babies each year. Birth defects affect different parts of the body, such as the heart, brain, kidneys, eyes, arms or legs and change how that body part typically looks, works, or both. Some babies may only have one birth defect, while others may have many birth defects. Sometimes we know exactly why these birth defects happen, but often the cause is a mystery. Most occur in the first three months of pregnancy, when these body parts or organs are forming. The March of Dimes has excellent resources about birth defects and birth defects prevention.

One serious birth defect that can happen during pregnancy is called a neural tube defect, which can affect the spinal cord or brain of the developing baby. To help prevent neural tubes defects, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) recommends that all women take a prenatal vitamin that contains 400 micrograms of folic acid beginning at least one month prior to getting pregnant and all throughout the pregnancy.² A woman who is not sure when she plans to get pregnant should take a vitamin with 400 micrograms of folic acid every day.

A woman can increase her chances of having a healthy baby by:

  • Visiting with her health care provider as soon as she realizes she is pregnant
  • Talking to her health care provider about any medications she is taking
  • Talking to her health care provider about any current medical condition
  • Not drinking alcohol, smoking cigarettes, chewing tobacco, or using street drugs
  • Talking to her health care provider about any illnesses or infections
  • Taking prenatal vitamins prior to getting pregnant and during pregnancy
  • Talking to her health care provider about diet and exercise during pregnancy

One common medical condition that is linked to birth defects is diabetes. In 2014, approximately 15 percent, or one in seven adults, in San Antonio were diagnosed with type 1 or type 2 diabetes.5 Babies born to women who have diabetes have an increased chance of having a baby with birth defects of the skeleton, kidneys, heart, gastrointestinal system, and genitalia.³  Women with diabetes should seek medical care prior to getting pregnant and immediately after they think they might be pregnant.4   

There are many other reasons why a baby might be born with one or more birth defects. Genetics professionals specialize in figuring out these reasons and helping families understand what happened, what might happen in the future, and what we can do to make the future as bright as possible. Genetic specialists also can help families understand if birth defects might happen again in another pregnancy.

If your baby has a major birth defect, if you have a family history of birth defects, or if you are currently pregnant and concerned about your risk for a birth defect, consider getting an appointment with a Genetics Specialist in Pediatric Genetics or Maternal Fetal Medicine.

We, the genetics professionals at The Children’s Hospital of San Antonio, encourage you to ask your health care providers about birth defects, folic acid and other vitamins, and diabetes – questions that will help you discover what is best for you and your children. We are ready to support you on your current or future pregnancy journey.

Talk to your doctor or your child’s pediatrician if you need a referral to consult with the Genetics team at The Children’s Hospital of San Antonio. Referrals can be made by calling 210.704.4708.

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