BY JAMIE LOBER
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has proclaimed that January is “Birth Defects Prevention Month.” Their take-home message is that not all birth defects can be prevented, but there are steps you can take, such as managing health conditions and adopting healthy behavior, that can increase your chance of a healthy baby. No woman should go through the pregnancy journey alone. “Have a medical home that is a regular doctor that you see to stay on top of chronic illnesses, or even things you may not be aware of, such as [that] an acne medication you are taking could cause a birth defect,” said Michaela Penix, Director of Maternal Child Health and Government Affairs with the March of Dimes in Winston-Salem. The doctor can help you plan your pregnancy, or prevent one if you do not want to have a baby in the future.
One easy thing you can do is take a multivitamin that contains at least 400 micrograms of folic acid daily. “The March of Dimes was one of the champions to make sure products are fortified with folic acid, and their research shows that it can prevent neural tube defects by up to 70 percent,” declared Penix. Being educated about medications you are taking can make a difference. “There are some medicines people may not know could harm a developing fetus, which is especially important if you are not necessarily planning your pregnancy—and we know that over half of pregnancies in North Carolina are unplanned,” Penix revealed. Of course, you want to be open with your doctor about your health history and medications you are taking.
If you have a family history of a certain health condition, it is a good idea to screen for it. “You can be your own advocate and ask for tests to be done for you and your baby,” advised Penix. There are many great tools out there to manage health burdens. “You want to look out for things like high blood pressure and preeclampsia. Low-dose aspirin therapy can help reduce the risk of having a baby born preterm and you going into full eclampsia,” Penix said. Pay attention to your body and continue to report anything that feels unusual. “If mom has had a previous preterm birth, there is a therapy called 17P, or progesterone shots, that you can talk to your doctor about to see if it is a good fit for you to prevent preterm birth when you are pregnant again,” assured Penix.
Lifestyle choices can always be taken into account, such as not smoking, eating well and staying active. Our state report card just came out, and while the C we earned is not quite worthy of celebrating, we have improved. “What is great, is that in Forsyth in previous years we had an F and this year we moved into a D,” said Penix. One of the biggest misconceptions women have is that preterm birth just happens and nothing can be done about it. That is not the reality, as there is so much women can do before and after pregnancy to improve their health and avoid preterm birth. “Preterm birth is the leading cause of infant mortality and a huge contributing factor to special needs and developmental delays in children,” emphasized Penix. Preterm birth is officially defined as any birth before 37 weeks of pregnancy.
If you are thinking about conceiving, try to think ahead. “When you plan it out, you can really work towards being your healthiest and in a healthy place in life in general,” observed Penix. Finding yourself pregnant unexpectedly can bring on undue stress, which is never good for moms or babies. The medical community is hopeful that we can continue to make strides. The March of Dimes has invested in prematurity research centers across the country to try to identify more potential causes and ways of determining a woman’s risk. “We have been able to do some research around the human genome and genes that might be associated, and we are also doing some around the vaginal microbiome which are the natural bacteria and other microorganisms that live inside the vagina and the differences between a woman at risk for preterm birth and a woman who is not,” said Penix. There is hope that there may be a screening tool out there in years to come. “Hopefully one day it will be something as simple as a vaginal swab similar to a pap smear that could help determine a woman’s risk for preterm birth,” he declared.