National Birth Defects Prevention Month is observed in January to promote prenatal health and decrease the risk of preventable birth defects.
A birth defect is an abnormality in the appearance, structure, or function of a body part that is present at birth. It can be outwardly visible, an internal abnormality, or a chemical imbalance. A birth defect can be a single abnormality affecting one body part or multiple abnormalities affecting many parts of the body. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that in the United States, approximately 120,000 babies are born with a birth defect each year.
Some birth defects are preventable and others are not. Birth defects that cannot be prevented may be associated with genetic conditions, such as Down syndrome and cystic fibrosis, and are caused by changes in DNA. Other birth defects that are typically not preventable are caused by abnormalities in the womb, such as reduced amniotic fluid or tears in the tissues that surround and support the fetus.
Birth defects that are often preventable are caused by environmental factors, such as poor nutrition, infections, or alcohol use. A shortage (deficiency) of folate (vitamin B9) in a woman's diet early in pregnancy can lead to neural tube defects, such as spina bifida, in which the spinal column or spinal cord develops abnormally. A serious infection during pregnancy, such as rubella (German measles), can result in the fetus developing health problems that affect the eyes, ears, or heart. Alcohol use during pregnancy can cause the baby to be born with a group of health problems collectively known as fetal alcohol syndrome. This birth defect includes intellectual disability, irritability, hyperactivity, poor coordination, and characteristic facial features.
National Birth Defects Prevention Month is a time to highlight the steps that individuals who are planning a pregnancy can take to reduce the risk of birth defects. Additionally, it is an opportunity to support families with affected children and advance research and treatment.