Pregnancy and Birth Defects: How to Prevent and Increase Successful Outcomes

57442157_22.jpg"You are what you eat." These words are even more true when it’s in reference to when you are pregnant! In all honesty, for pregnant people, the phrase should be “Your baby is what you eat.” Your body is growing cells and processing at such a rapid rate that literally, what you are eating is becoming your child. There are many reasons for moms to eat well during pregnancy; some of the most vital reasons are to increase the likelihood that your child is born full term, has a healthy birth weight, and is born without birth defects.

What are birth defects and how do they happen? A birth defect is a developmental problem that happens when a baby is growing in the womb. It can be caused by genetics or may be due to a result of environmental factors. Typically, birth defects happen within the first three months of pregnancy, which is why it’s so important to start eating well and taking precautions early on for your child. Birth defects are quite common; in America alone, 1 out of every 33 children are typically born with a birth defect. Luckily, there are many things that you can do to make sure that your child is the healthiest s/he can be!

1. Take a prenatal vitamin with folic acid prior to conception and throughout pregnancy. Folic acid is very important for proper growth of your infant, and is actually one of the few nutrients that are absorbed better via pill form than from the food you eat! A prenatal vitamin with folic acid can prevent against birth defects such as neural tube defects developed during the first trimester.

2. Talk to your care provider about some of the medications you are taking on a regular basis. Not all medications are good for pregnancy, and some can actually cause harm to your growing child. If you take a specific medication on a continual basis, talk with your doctor or midwife and make sure that it will not cause harm to your baby.

3. Take measures to maintain an appropriate weight gain during pregnancy. Newer studies are coming out that associate obesity during pregnancy as a possible risk factor for increasing the chances that your child will be born with a birth defect. For most mothers, the expected amount of weight gain is between 25-35 pounds. However, this amount can be different depending on your health and your weight pre-pregnancy. Talk to your care provider or a dietitian to find out what the appropriate weight gain is for you.

4. Eat the key nutrients needed. Your body needs a lot more nutrition during pregnancy, which makes sense considering that you’re growing another human being. However, there are consequences to only eating the calories and not eating the nutrient-dense foods needed. Research shows that parents with improper nutrition intake during pregnancy can be associated with birth defects such as brain issues like autism or developmental delays. Missing opportunities to eat needed levels of nutrients during pregnancy can create chronic conditions in your child long-term.


Birth defects can often be avoided by eating well, gaining just enough weight, and talking to your midwife or doctor about the right prenatal vitamins and medications to take, and environmental exposures to avoid. A healthy pregnancy is a team effort -- be sure to involve everyone on your team to have the right tools in place and ensure the most healthy pregnancy for you and your baby.


Adolfo Correa, Jessica Marcinkevage; Prepregnancy obesity and the risk of birth defects: an update. Nutr Rev 2014; 71 (suppl_1): S68-S77. doi: 10.1111/nure.12058

J Acad Nutr Diet. Position of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics: Nutrition and Lifestyle for a Healthy Pregnancy Outcome. 2014;114:1099-1103.


pet.jpgPetra Colindres is a Family Dietitian and Lactation Consultant with a passion for infant nutrition and prenatal education, valuing the importance of the first thousand days of an infant’s life (from conception to 2 years) to be the standard for future successful health outcomes. Petra owns Nutrition by Petra, a pregnancy and early childhood nutrition consultation practice that provides at-home lactation assistance and pediatric nutrition support. Petra’s hobbies are running/working out, teaching cooking classes around the state, and playing with her first child Bodie. Follow Petra on Twitter @PetraNutrition, on Facebook or on instagram @nutritionbypetra to see some of her favorite baby meals. You can also email her at



February 9, 2017 05:03 PM by Wendy

I would love to share this article, but won't because you only mention doctors! How about "talk to your doctor or midwife" or "talk to your health care practitioner". Please take into account the increasing number of families choosing midwives and out of hospital births.

Wendy: You're right!

February 10, 2017 09:46 AM by Cara Terreri, LCCE, CD(DONA)

Thanks for the catch, Wendy! We've edited the article. Not sure how that one slipped by as we are big advocates for both midwifery and OB care!

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