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The Causes and Prevention of Birth Defects, and Knowing Your Rights

smiling baby in a diaper on a white blanket with a person's hand holding a stethoscope to their heart

Birth defects happen more often than they should, occuring in about 3% of all live births, according to data from the Health Resources & Services Administration. Birth defects are among the leading causes of infant mortality, and they account for more than 20% of all infant deaths in the U.S.

Women who are pregnant may wonder if birth defects can be prevented and when in the pregnancy birth defects can begin to develop or occur. Mothers may also wonder if it is worth it to pursue a birth injury case if they recently gave birth to a child that they believe may have  suffered a birth defect due to medical negligence.  To help address some of these questions, we want to provide more information about the causes of birth defects, possible steps to prevent birth injury, and your right to file a birth injury lawsuit if complications were caused by medical negligence or environmental factors beyond your control.

Common Causes of Birth Defects

What are some of the most common causes of birth defects? The causes of about 30% of birth defects are known, according to the Cleveland Clinic; sometimes, birth defects are caused by genetics or genetic mutations in the mother or father, or are the effects of chromosomal problems, such as those associated with Turner syndrome, Klinefelter syndrome, and Down syndrome.  

But birth defects can also be caused by a mix of environmental and genetic factors. For example, some children are more likely to develop birth defects than other children based on their genetics and predisposition to be affected by toxins in their environment. So factors in a pregnant mother’s environment can lead to an infant developing birth defects.   

Many common causes of birth defects are preventable. When a woman is exposed to dangerous chemicals in the air or in her environment, chemical agents known as teratogens can enter the womb and start to affect the baby in-utero. These teratogens alter the development of a fetus during pregnancy. The Cleveland clinic reports that 10% of birth defects are caused by environmental factors such as infection, radiation, and drugs. The use of dangerous drugs during pregnancy can also lead to birth defects. Preventable causes of birth defects can include the following:

  • Infections in the mother during pregnancy;
  • Mother’s exposure to certain medicines;,
  • Exposure to dangerous chemicals, or other substances at home or in the workplace during pregnancy
  • Exposure to unsafe practices at work, such as long shifts or heavy lifting, during the late stages of pregnancy;
  • Exposure to lead and heavy metals, volatile organic compounds, second-hand smoke, chemotherapy drugs, very loud noises, and some epoxies and resins.  

In some cases, women develop infections during pregnancy due to a healthcare provider’s negligence, or are exposed to medications that can cause birth defects because of a healthcare provider’s decision to prescribe a certain drug. This has been the case for certain drugs like Zofran. In such instances where a physician prescribed dangerous drugs to a pregnant mother, birth defects may be tied to medical malpractice.

Ways to Minimize the Risk of Birth Defects

Given that some of the causes of birth defects are unknown or attributed to genetics, it is not possible to take steps to prevent  all types of birth defects from occurring. However, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) provides some standard guidelines for pregnant women to reduce the risk of their child developing birth defects during pregnancy. These tips include the following:

  • Take at least 400 micrograms (mcg) of folic acid on a daily basis. Folic acid may be obtained through vitamin tablets and pills, or through fortified foods, and is shown to reduce the likelihood of  birth defects that affect a baby’s brain and spine;
  • Talk to your obstetrician before you start taking or stop taking any medications, including over-the-counter ones;
  • Stop using any kind of alcohol or tobacco products; and
  • Communicate with your doctor concerning any medications that you might need to use during your pregnancy.

Your Rights in Birth Defect Cases

If you recently gave birth to a child who was born with a birth defect that may have been prevented, you should discuss your situation with a birth defect lawyer, especially if you suspect that the birth defect was caused by an injury at work, a heavy workload, medical malpractice or dangerous chemicals in your environment. Every situation is different and a free consultation with a birth defect lawyer will help guide you during this difficult time.

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