Not all congenital disabilities (once referred to as birth defects) can be prevented. Still, risks can be reduced by making good choices before and during pregnancy, increasing the likelihood of having a healthy baby.

Identifying Congenital Disabilities

By using standard tests or scans, many congenital disabilities can be identified in utero. Most others can be detected within the first year of life. Some, such as cleft palate, may be easy to see, but others, for example, heart conditions or hearing loss, may require special tests, such as an ultrasound or hearing tests. Some rare anomalies are not evident until later in life.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), no amount of care can eliminate the risk of congenital disabilities; they affect about 3 percent of all babies born in the U.S. each year. If you are pregnant or planning to become pregnant, you can increase your chances of having a healthy baby at any stage. Chief among these factors is taking care of your health.

Disability Prevention

Some of the most common causes of congenital disabilities are genetic conditions we cannot change. Regardless, there are positive approaches you should take. Perhaps the most important Is to take 400 micrograms (mcg) daily of Folic Acid. Before and during pregnancy, the right amount of Folic Acid can help avoid significant congenital disabilities in developing the brain and spine (e.g., spina bifida).

Folic Acid is a more stable form of folate (Vitamin B9) that we ingest as part of our everyday diet via bread, pasta, rice, and cereals. The average intake is around 150 mcg per day, but women should try to increase their intake to 400 mcg daily both before and during pregnancy.

All Affordable Care Act (ACA) compliant healthcare plans should cover the cost of Folic Acid supplements during pregnancy. Medicaid also covers this vital medication for eligible women.

Additionally, women need to consult with a physician both when planning a pregnancy and regularly when she thinks she has become pregnant. It would help if you also used this time to discuss any medications you may be taking, whether prescribed or over the counter, including herbal supplements.

At any time, and especially if you are planning to become pregnant:

  • Get as healthy as you can:
    • Eat a healthy diet
    • Attempt as much physical exercise as possible
    • Work to get any existing medical conditions, such as diabetes, under control
    • Commit to reaching and maintaining a healthy weight
    • Avoid harmful activities:
      • Smoking/vaping, including passive inhalation
      • Drinking alcohol
      • Taking drugs (even legal ones, such as marijuana), other than those prescribed by your physician
    • Avoid:
      • Infections: even minor conditions are more significant when the sufferer is pregnant and harmful to the developing baby.
      • Overheating: treat fevers promptly and avoid any activity that raises the body’s core temperature for prolonged periods.
      • Exposure to or inhalation of volatile substances.

Leading Causes of Congenital Disabilities

The causes of congenital disabilities can be divided broadly into three classes:

  • Genetic or hereditary factors
  • Infection during pregnancy
  • Drug exposure during pregnancy

Genetics

We all recognize the influence of heredity or genes on us as babies and our development through childhood to maturity and old age. Those influences are mostly benign: the color of our eyes, hair, and height. In a few cases, genes convey scrambled messages regarding development and function. The result of this is the abnormal development of the fetus; as we noted earlier, about 3 percent of pregnancies in the U.S. result in congenital disabilities, whereas the worldwide average is around 6 percent. According to the CDC’s Data and Health Statistics on Congenital Disabilities, genetic or hereditary factors cause approximately one-fifth of these.

The chances of a hereditary congenital disability increase if you or your partner has a blood relative in the family with a congenital disability. Talk about your family histories with your physician, who may refer you to a genetic counselor.

Infection During Pregnancy

Pregnant women are more likely to experience severe reactions to common infections, such as the flu than those who are not pregnant. Getting a flu shot should be a priority when attempting to conceive. Flu shots can protect mothers and even their babies for up to six months after delivery.

Your healthcare professional may recommend other specific vaccinations against infections that can cause congenital disabilities. Having the appropriate vaccinations and medications before and during pregnancy can help keep both mother and baby healthy.

Drug and Alcohol Exposure During Pregnancy

Using alcohol and recreational drugs at any stage of pregnancy are the most common causes of congenital disabilities. Although legal in some states, marijuana is among those drugs and should be avoided. Drugs may increase the risk of:

  • Premature birth
  • Congenital disabilities
  • Poor growth
  • Behavioral/learning difficulties
  • Being born with drug addiction

Nicotine and its derivatives contribute to congenital disabilities, such as cleft lip/palate, low birth weight, and infant deaths. Caffeine also contributes to congenital disabilities, whether from coffee, tea, or sodas. Limit caffeine intake to the equivalent of two to three cups of coffee to lessen the risks of miscarriage.

Getting Health Insurance While Pregnant

Under the ACA, compliant health insurance plans must cover both pregnancy and childbirth. And, once your child is born, it is automatically covered by your healthcare plan for their first thirty days.

Typically, you can only change your healthcare coverage during an Open Enrollment period; for example, the Affordable Care Act Open Enrollment period runs through January 15, 2022.

However, pregnancy is a qualifying event that entitles you to enroll in a health insurance plan outside the Open Enrollment period to meet your new circumstances. This means you qualify for a Special Enrollment Period and will not need to wait for the next Open Enrollment period to get health insurance coverage for you during your pregnancy or add your newborn baby to your existing health insurance policy.

If you or your physician suspect a congenital disability, discuss the need for corrective intervention and the financial implications right away.

Most health insurance plans should cover any health services related to congenital disabilities. But it is still vital to be sure of the precise terms of your existing coverage. Contact your insurance plan’s health plan coordinator or an experienced, qualified health advisor if you are pregnant.

Or, if you make less than the minimum income required for an ACA plan, you and your baby likely qualify for the Children’s Health Insurance Plan or CHIP.