In recognition of National Birth Defects Awareness Month in January, March of Dimes and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC) are working in partnership to raise awareness of birth defects across all stages of life. Every four and a half minutes a baby is born with a birth defect and while many children with birth defects lead long and happy lives, birth defects are a leading cause of infant mortality in the U.S. Through this partnership the organizations are providing tips women can take to reduce the risk of birth defects and provide individuals, parents and families affected by birth defects with the information they need to seek proper care.
Each year, about 1 in every 33 babies are born with birth defects in the U.S., according to CDC. Most often developing during the first three months of pregnancy when a baby’s organs are forming, birth defects are structural changes that affect one or more parts of the body. The most common birth defects include congenital heart defects, cleft lip and cleft palate and spina bifida. While some specific birth defects have very different rates of occurrence across racial and ethnic groups, birth defects can affect babies regardless of where they are born, their socioeconomic status, or their race or ethnicity.
Though birth defects are still the leading cause of infant mortality, a CDC study found that in the United States, during 2003-2017, rates of infant deaths due to birth defects declined by 10%. However, not all babies are benefiting equally and the rates of infant death due to birth defects were 30% higher for babies born to Black moms compared with babies of White moms. Factors such as variation in quality healthcare, underlying chronic conditions, structural racism, and other social determinants of health contribute to these disparities and are areas of possible intervention.
“While we’re seeing fewer infant deaths resulting from birth defects, we are very concerned about the disparities that exist across ethnic groups for babies born with birth defects,” said Elizabeth Cherot, MD, MBA, incoming Chief Medical and Health Officer of March of Dimes. “We see the same disparities trend with maternal health and though it is a result of a complex web of factors, we are continually working with doctors and researchers to discover new treatments to improve the survival and health of all babies with birth defects. Advancements such as improved newborn screening and early detection of birth defects can help every family have a healthy start.”
Babies born with birth defects may need special care as they grow and develop. Many children with birth defects lead long and happy lives. However, birth defects remain critical conditions that can cause challenges from infancy through adulthood.
INFANCY – Parents of a child with a birth defect can prepare for their child’s needs by learning about their child’s condition and the experiences of other families. This knowledge can equip them to make the best possible choices for their child’s health.
CHILDHOOD – Children born with birth defects may also have physical and intellectual disabilities. The exact ages of developmental milestones are different for each child. Families, educators, and healthcare providers can work together to set meaningful goals and create a plan to help children living with birth defects reach their full potential. Early intervention services and supports include special education, speech therapy, and physical therapy.
ADOLESCENCE – Adolescents and young adults living with birth defects may face unique challenges as they transition from childhood to adulthood. The transition to adult health care can be tricky for teens and young adults living with a birth defect; they may need to navigate changes in insurance, or transition from a pediatric specialist to an adult specialist.
ADULTHOOD – People living with birth defects should talk with their healthcare providers before becoming pregnant to learn more about how a pregnancy might affect them and how their birth defect might affect their baby. Many women with birth defects and other health conditions have healthy, uneventful pregnancies. However, women with birth defects may be more likely to have a baby with a birth defect. Talking with a genetic counselor can be helpful.
“CDC’s data can help us understand the potential causes of birth defects and lead to important recommendations and improved services for individuals of all ages living with birth defects. We are committed to identifying health inequities and addressing them so that every child is born with the best health possible,” said Karen Remley, MD, MPH, director of CDC’s National Center on Birth Defects and Developmental Disabilities.
Birth defects can happen for many reasons and an individual’s genetics, behaviors, and social and environmental factors can impact risk for birth defects. Although not all birth defects can be prevented, individuals can increase their chances of having a healthy baby by managing health conditions and adopting healthy behaviors before becoming pregnant so that an individual can stay healthy during pregnancy and give their baby a healthy start in life.
If you or someone close to you needs help for a substance use disorder, talk to a healthcare provider or call SAMHSA’s National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357).
Join the conversation about National Birth Defects Awareness Month by following #AcrosstheLifespan and #BirthDefects, and visiting March of Dimes at marchofdimes.org/birthdefects and CDC at cdc.gov/birthdefects.
March of Dimes leads the fight for the health of all moms and babies. We support research, lead programs and provide education and advocacy so that every family can have the best possible start. Building on a successful 85-year legacy, we support every pregnant person and every family. To learn more about March of Dimes, please visit marchofdimes.org