Birth defects prevention

About the efforts of the Massachusetts Center for Birth Defects Research and Prevention

Birth defects are common, costly, and critical. The Centers for Disease Control report that birth defects are the leading cause of infant mortality in the United States.

Tips for a healthy pregnancy

  • Be sure to take 400 micrograms (mcg) of folic acid every day.
    Folic acid is very important because it can help prevent some major birth defects of the baby’s brain and spine when taken before and during pregnancy.
  • Book a visit with your healthcare provider before stopping or starting any medicine.
    There are often benefits to continuing a medication throughout pregnancy. Discussing a treatment plan allows a pregnant person and their health care provider to weigh the pros and cons of all options to keep them and their baby as healthy as possible.
  • Become up-to-date with all vaccines, including the flu shot.
    Having the right vaccinations, like the flu and Tdap vaccines, help keep a pregnant person and their baby healthy.
  • Before you get pregnant, try to reach a healthy weight.
    Obesity increases the risk for several birth defects and other pregnancy complications.
  • Avoid harmful substances during pregnancy, such as alcohol, tobacco, and other drugs.
    • There is no known safe amount of alcohol during pregnancy and consuming it while pregnant can cause major birth defects.
    • Smoking during pregnancy can cause dangerous chemicals to damage the placenta and/or reach the baby’s bloodstream.
    • The opioid addiction epidemic has led to a sharp increase in Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome (NAS), premature birth and drug withdrawal symptoms in babies.

Resources to support healthy pregnancies

National data on birth defects

Birth defects are common, costly, and critical.

  • The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that birth defects are the leading cause of infant mortality in the United States, accounting for 20% of all infant deaths.
  • Nationally, 1 in 33 babies are born with a birth defect.
  • Almost 8,000 of nearly 120,000 babies born in the U.S. every year die during their first year.
  • Birth defects are the fifth leading cause of years of potential life lost and contribute substantially to childhood illness and long term disability.
  • Birth defects are responsible for 30% of all pediatric hospital admissions and cost Americans over $2 billion each year.
  • Although only about 30% of birth defects have an identifiable cause, research in recent years has provided information on one very important strategy for preventing a type of birth defect called neural tube defects (NTDs).
  • Explore Massachusetts birth defects data.

Neural tube defects and their prevention

Neural tube defects

About 2,500 babies are born with NTDs each year. NTDs are congenital malformations of the brain and spinal cord in which the neural tube, the foundation of the central nervous system, fails to close properly in the first 28 days of life. These NTDs result in spina bifida, a physical problem where the baby will never be able to walk, or anencephaly, a problem where the brain and skull will never develop fully and the baby dies.

Up to 70% of these NTDs could be prevented. A baby needs folic acid right after it is conceived, before a person knows they are pregnant. If a person who can get pregnant has plenty of it in their body before pregnancy, this vitamin can prevent birth defects of the baby's spine or brain. The key is for the person to make sure their body has a sufficient amount of folic acid before getting pregnant.

Folic acid

Folic acid is a B vitamin found in some enriched foods and vitamin pills. Folic acid helps the baby's brain and spinal cord develop properly. Without enough folic acid, the baby could have neural tube defects.

The U.S. Public Health Service recommends all people of child-bearing age who are capable of becoming pregnant, take 400 milligrams of folic acid every day. Folic acid has been added to breads, pastas, rice, and cereals. Fruits and vegetables can provide some. It is possible to get folic acid through food alone, but it takes careful planning to make sure a person gets enough every day. The easiest way is by taking a multivitamin containing folic acid daily.

Since the word has been getting out about the importance of folic acid, the number of babies born with NTDs has decreased.

Contact for Birth defects prevention


Bureau of Family Health and Nutrition
250 Washington St., Boston, MA 02108

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