By Ali Weatherford in collaboration with Cassie Terrillion – IBCLC/Telemedicine Specialist/Parent Educator

January is National Birth Defects Awareness Month. This is not something that’s fun to think about while we’re pregnant, both for obvious reasons, and because it’s just plain rare. But bringing awareness is important so that we have some information and tools for ourselves or to share with others when it does happen.

What is a Birth Defect?

There are many different kinds of birth defects ranging from mild to severe. A birth defect is a structural change in the body that is identified either during pregnancy or after birth. A birth defect can involve any body part or system and can be caused by genetics, physical trauma, environmental factors like alcohol/drugs or a virus, or just by a random glitch in development. Approximately 120,000 babies are born with birth defects each year in the United States. That’s around 3% of births. A significant percentage of these are caused by drug and alcohol use and smoking. So, if you have not been using harmful substances during pregnancy, your risks are lower. These kinds of birth defects are preventable.

Other things you can do to lower your baby’s risk for birth defects include:

  • Getting prenatal care
  • Getting plenty of folic acid
  • Preventing infections
  • Staying healthy during pregnancy with a good diet, exercise, stress, and weight management
  • Avoiding certain medications and being sure to discuss any medication or vaccine use with your doctor
  • Keep your body temperature low by reducing or avoiding fever, hot tubs, saunas, hot yoga, etc.

Some birth defects are very obvious and others can’t be seen because they affect an internal organ or body part such as the ear or the heart. Often, birth defects are easily managed and not life-threatening. Most birth defects are very rare, most are manageable, and all are something parents hope to avoid. That’s completely understandable.

Challenges Children and Parents Face

It’s really hard to think that your baby will have to face additional challenges as they grow. As parents, we hope that our children have to struggle as little as possible. We also know that sometimes it’s the struggles that make us stronger. You can help. It’s very important to get support and learn as much as you can about how to best cope with your baby’s situation. It’s also important to remember that children with birth defects can grow to be exceptionally healthy and happy people, sometimes BECAUSE they’ve faced and overcome big challenges with loving and supportive families.

How Parents Can Help

For parents whose babies are born with a birth defect, providing your milk can be something powerful that you can do to strengthen and support them. Breastfeeding can be a great way to give these babies a boost. We know that breast milk is healthy, but it’s an even more valuable resource when a baby is sick, weak, or recovering. Milk banks first supply hospital NICUs with donor breast milk, because it is nature’s medicine. It can mean significantly better outcomes over formula for those babies whose health is uncertain. It can save lives.

There are some more common birth defects that might actually make breastfeeding more difficult. Down Syndrome, a cleft lip or palate, and certain heart defects might mean breastfeeding directly is not possible right away. Sometimes, these babies can receive treatment or care and then be able to breastfeed.

Other times, it may mean that a baby gets pumped breast milk through a bottle, cup, syringe, or tube feeding. If that is necessary, it means that the parent will need to get plenty of help to be successful with pumping. It’s important to have a high-grade pump plus plenty of support and time to spend pumping to maintain a good milk supply.

This can be very hard when you’re also focused on spending time with your baby, recovering from birth, and dealing with all of the other things in life. For many parents though, it feels empowering. Pumping milk gives them a way to focus their energy, and they know it’s going to have great benefits for their baby. Whether you are able to provide milk for your baby or not, you are a critical part of your child’s recovery and overall health picture. Your attention, love, skin-to-skin contact, and snuggling are all things that every parent can provide to help comfort and reassure their children through any challenges.

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Our articles are not intended or implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment.