January is National Birth Defects Prevention Month. This month focuses on raising awareness of birth defects, how they’re caused, the affect they have and how some can be prevented. Through National Birth Defects Prevention Month, the hope is that those who are affected by birth defects can live healthier, longer lives, and that those who are growing their families remain unaffected by birth defects.
What Is a Birth Defect?
There are many kinds of birth defects, and they can affect people in many different ways. Here are some important facts that everyone should know about birth defects:
- Any complication that is presented at birth that alters the body’s appearance, function, or both is considered a birth defect.
- One in 33 babies is born in the United States with a birth defect.
- The severity of birth defects can range from moderate to critical, even causing death.
- Birth defects are a leading cause of infant mortality.
- Most birth defects occur during the first trimester.
- Although some defects are detectable during gestation or at birth, some defects may not be identified until later in the person’s life, especially if the defect hadn’t caused noticeable health problems for the person.
How Preimplantation Genetic Screening (PGS) is Helping to Decrease Birth Defects in Surrogacy
In gestational surrogacy, preimplantation genetic screening (PGS) is routinely conducted to help prevent birth defects. PGS checks the embryos used in surrogacy for potential genetic diseases or disorders that could result in a birth defect before they’re transferred to a surrogate to carry. Here’s how PGS works:
- A few cells are microsurgically removed from the embryos being tested after they’ve been developing for about five days, at which point the embryos are frozen.
- The DNA of those cells is examined to see if certain genes which could cause harmful defects are visible. This stage takes a minimum of one week.
- If the embryos have no concerning genetic issues, an embryo (or multiple embryos) will be transferred to the gestational surrogate in the hopes of a successful implantation.
In addition to PGS, prenatal screening is also routinely done later in the gestational surrogate’s pregnancy to catch any other potential health concerns. The health and safety of gestational surrogates as well as the baby are the two primary goals in surrogacy, so PGS and prenatal screening are both important to achieving that.
What You Can Do
Many of the causes behind birth defects are unknown, but there are always efforts being made to better understand and prevent birth defects whenever possible. Here’s what you can do:
As a Surrogate…
Gestational surrogates must meet a fairly strict list of physical requirements. This is designed to limit the risk of health problems for the surrogate as well as the baby. Surrogates must be generally healthy, have already given birth with no pregnancy complications, have a healthy BMI, be free of STDs, be smoke- and drug-free, be financially stable, meet age requirements and meet other important health criteria.
These health requirements may make it less likely for birth defects to occur, but even the healthiest gestational surrogate can’t guarantee that a child she carries won’t develop a birth defect, as much as she’d like to protect the baby from health issues. If you’re a surrogate, most of the strategies for preventing birth defects are the basics of maintaining a healthy pregnancy. This includes:
- Seeing your OBGYN for regular prenatal checkups. Some defects can be caught early and treated or prevented before birth.
- Staying healthy by eating right, drinking lots of water, exercising regularly (light to moderate), getting plenty of sleep and of course avoiding smoke, drugs, alcohol and other unhealthy habits.
- Taking your prenatal vitamins, especially daily iron, which can reduce the risk of anemia, as well as daily folic acid, which has been shown to reduce the occurrence of birth defects in the baby’s spine and brain.
- Reducing your stress. Stress hormones can be transferred to the baby through amniotic fluid and can negatively affect development, so rest, meditate and try to stay relaxed.
Remember that you can do everything right and a child may still be born with a birth defect. Although this is a frightening thought for surrogates who feel responsible for the safety and health of the intended parents’ child, understand that most of the time, these things are out of anyone’s control. Keeping yourself healthy is the best thing you can do for the intended parents’ baby!
As an Intended Parent…
Again, there is no 100 percent guarantee that a child will be free of birth defects. However, there are a few things that you can do as an intended parent to reduce the risk of birth defects when you’re having a child via surrogacy, including:
- Using donor gametes if you or your spouse has a genetic disorder that you’re worried about passing on.
- Obtaining a detailed family health history on both sides whenever possible.
- Having PGS completed on your embryos prior to embryo transfer with your gestational surrogate to ensure your embryo(s) are healthy and free of potential defects.
An important thing to consider as an intended parent: what would you want to do if one or more of your embryos had a genetic disorder that would lead to a birth defect? This possibility can be difficult to think about, but it is something you’ll need to consider before you complete PGS.
As a Person Who Cares…
If you’ve been affected by birth defects, know someone with a birth defect, or you simply want to help raise awareness and offer support, everyone can step up during National Birth Defects Prevention Month. Here are a few simple ways you can join the cause:
- Join the #Prevent2Protect Thunderclap to raise awareness of National Birth Defects Prevention Month and to sign up to share a unified, simultaneous message of support across social media.
- Share your story with the hashtag #1in33 This is Me if you or someone you love has been affected by a birth defect, and help others to feel supported and understood.
- Share factual information about health, and how steps can be taken to prevent some birth defects by using the hashtag #Prevent2Protect when you share that information.
How will you participate during National Birth Defects Prevention Month? Let us know in the comments.