Birth Defects

What is a birth defect?

A birth defect is a health problem or physical change present at birth. Birth defects may be very mild with no obvious symptoms, or birth defects may be severe with immediate health problems present. Some severe birth defects can even be life threatening, causing death at a young age.

Birth defects are also called congenital anomalies or congenital abnormalities. Congenital means present at birth. Anomalies and abnormalities mean there is a unusual development.

What causes birth defects?

Most occur due to environmental and genetic factors, but often the cause is unknown.

Who is affected by birth defects?

Birth defects are present in babies from all over the world, from families of all nationalities and backgrounds. If a couple becomes pregnant, then there is a chance their baby will have a birth defect. Most babies are born healthy.

In fact, 97 out of 100 babies are born healthy. Usually, there is a 3 percent to 4 percent chance that a baby will have a birth defect. The 3 percent to 4 percent number is sometimes called the background rate or population risk for birth defects. In a family where birth defects are already present, the chance of a couple having a child with a birth defect may be higher than the background rate of 3 percent to 4 percent.

Why are birth defects a concern?

Some birth defects have a single abnormality. Others have abnormalities in multiple body systems or organs. Birth defects may cause life-long disability and illness. Sometimes for a child with a birth defect, survival is not possible.

Some birth defects, such as mental retardation, are not treatable. However, many physical defects can be treated with surgery. Repair is possible with many defects, including cleft lip, cleft palate and certain heart defects.

Prevention of birth defects

Research is continuing to find and treat the causes of many birth defects. Immunizations for mothers, such as rubella, can prevent infections.

Alcohol has dangerous effects on a developing baby. Women are now advised to not drink during pregnancy.

In recent years, a strong link between the lack of the B-vitamin folic acid and neural tube defects has been discovered, such as spina bifida. Taking a vitamin with sufficient B-vitamin folic acid--before conception and during early pregnancy--can help prevent many serious defects.