Black newborn baby sleeping with fist closed, under a white blanket

Can poor nutrition cause birth defects?

Here are some sobering statistics about birth defects from the CDC.

  • Every 4 ½ minutes, a child is born with a birth defect.
  • Every 1 in 33 babies is born with a birth defect in the United States
  • Approximately 120,000 babies are born with birth defects each year.

Some birth defects are easy to identify (cleft lip). Others, like hearing loss, heart problems, and even some kinds of spina bifida are not easy to identify and can take years to diagnose. Birth defects are a mix of genetics, environmental, and behavioral factors, and the cause isn’t always clear. Most birth defects happen in a woman’s first trimester. This is when the baby’s organs and spinal cord are developing; however, some birth defects can develop later on during pregnancy.

There are factors that increase the risk of a baby developing birth defects. They include:

  • Smoking and drinking alcohol. Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders (FASD) are preventable birth defects. 
  • Medical conditions like obesity and having untreated diabetes before and during pregnancy.
  • Certain medications.
  • Genetic factors
  • Toxoplasmosis, Zika virus, and other infections during pregnancy
  • High fevers during pregnancy.  
  • Being an older mother increases the risk of chromosomal abnormalities

Here are some things every woman can do to improve her baby’s chances of being born healthy. 

Ingest 400 grams of folic acid each day. Folic acid is a B-vitamin that is essential for proper cell growth and development. It plays a critical role in the development of a baby’s neural tube, which is the part of the embryo that eventually becomes the brain and spinal cord. If the neural tube doesn’t develop properly, it can result in a serious birth defect called a neural tube defect (NTD).

Research has shown that taking folic acid supplements before and during early pregnancy can significantly reduce the risk of NTDs, such as spina bifida and anencephaly. In fact, taking folic acid supplements before pregnancy is recommended, as the neural tube begins to form very early in pregnancy, often before a woman even knows she’s pregnant.

Prevent foodborne infections and bacteria: Pregnant women are more susceptible to certain infections, such as the flu, as well as certain types of bacteria that can cause urinary tract infections. Avoiding certain nutrients and foods can reduce your risk of infection, which, in turn, reduces the baby’s risk of birth defects. 

Manage diabetes: Diabetes and gestational diabetes can often be managed with diet. Before getting pregnant, it’s critical to get your blood sugar levels under control. Work with an RDN and develop a diet plan. If you are diagnosed with gestational diabetes, work with an expert nutrition coach to develop an individualized nutrition plan to manage your blood sugar levels. 

Don’t smoke: Smoking increases the risk of pre-term birth and some birth defects like orofacial cleft. The risk of SIDS (Sudden Infant Death Syndrome) is increased when the mother smokes. It’s never too late to quit smoking while pregnant. 

Don’t drink alcohol. Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders (FASD) are completely preventable birth defects. These disorders can be physical, behavioral, and/or cognitive. 

It’s important to note there is a correlation between poor nutrition and birth defects. Get a healthy pregnancy diet plan, trimester-by-trimester, to reduce risks during pregnancy and birth, improve your health, and develop habits that last a lifetime. Give your baby a headstart to a healthy life.