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Birth Defects Birth Defects
by Kimberly Allen, RN There are literally thousands of different birth defects that can occur in any baby and because of the diversity of... Birth Defects

by Kimberly Allen, RN

There are literally thousands of different birth defects that can occur in any baby and because of the diversity of the defects, some more common than others, many don’t realize just how common birth defects are.  The truth is, according to the CDC 1 out of every 33 babies born in the US are born with a birth defect.  In the US birth defects are also the leading cause of infant mortality accounting for over 20% of infant deaths.

birth defect

Many birth defects are genetic, but some are caused by poor nutrition or toxins taken by the mother during pregnancy, such as drinking too much alcohol.

The majority of birth defects develop early in pregnancy, during the first trimester, while the baby’s organs are forming.  However, there are also some birth defects that occur later in the pregnancy.  So far scientists have been able to determine the cause of some birth defects, however, for the majority we still don’t know the cause.  to date researchers have been able to show that many birth defects are caused by a combination of several factors including your genes, your lifestyle, and your environment.  Research has shown that women that drink alcohol, smoke or take certain drugs have a much greater risk of having a baby with a birth defect.  We also know that when a woman has certain medical conditions like diabetes that is not controlled have a greater risk of having a baby with a birth defect.  There are also certain prescription medications that can lead to birth defects.  The biggest problem with prescription medications is that if a pregnancy is unexpected and/or unplanned frequently the woman is well into her first trimester before she realizes she is pregnant.  So even if the medication is stopped as soon as she finds out there’s a significant possibility that the damage has already been done.
There are two main types of birth defects, developmental/functional and structural.  Structural birth defects are those that are those that are caused by a problem with how a body part develops.  The types of defects in this category include heart defects like valves that are either malformed or missing and cleft lip and cleft palate.  Any problems with the growth and development of the brain as well as the spinal cord are also considered structural defects including neural tube defects like spina bifida.  On the other hand, functional defects are those where there is a problem with how a particular body part or system functions.  These types of birth defects frequently lead to the development of developmental disabilities.  There are several types of functional defects including brain and nervous system disorders like Down syndrome and autism as well as problems with any of the senses like blindness or deafness.  Metabolic disorders like hypothyroidism or PKU are also functional disabilities.  There are also conditions that may not be noticeable at birth but develop as your child grows causing increasing problems in one or more area of health that are called degenerative defects.  Muscular Dystrophy and X-linked adenoleukodystrophy are types of degenerative defects.
The significant impact birth defects has on society both socially and economically lead Congress to direct the CDC to set up the Centers for Birth Defects Research and Prevention or CBDRP in 1996 to study the causes of birth defects. They began the largest study ever done in the US researching the causes of birth defects.  CBDRP centers that have been established in 10 states across the country all ready have established birth defect programs that have nationally recognized expertise in research and surveillance of birth defects.  So far over 35,000 women have been interviewed.  This group of women includes both mothers that have had either the pregnancy or a baby affected with a birth defect and mothers that had healthy pregnancies and babies.  This study is very important because it will help us to learn the causes of birth defects which in turn can help us find ways to prevent them.  The study will also provide our healthcare providers with an extensive resource to find possible causes of birth defects.  The study will also help in identifying any new substances in our environment that can be detrimental to developing babies.
If your child was born with a birth defect there are numerous local and national resources and treatment centers available, ask your doctor about a center near you.

Kimberly Allen is a registered nurse with an AND in nursing. She has worked in ACF, LCF and psychiatric facilities, although she spent most of her career as a home health expert. She is now a regular contributor to, dispensing advice and knowledge about medical issues and questions. You can reach her with any comments or questions at