Birth defects are common, costly, and critical conditions that affect 1 in every 33 babies born in the United States each year.1 Read more about what we have learned about birth defects and how women can improve their chances of having a baby born without a birth defect.

Birth Defects Are Common

Every 4 ½ minutes, a baby is born with a birth defect in the United States. That means nearly 120,000 babies are affected by birth defects each year.1

Birth defects are structural changes present at birth that can affect almost any part or parts of the body (e.g., heart, brain, foot). They may affect how the body looks, works, or both. Birth defects can vary from mild to severe. The well-being of each child affected with a birth defect depends mostly on which organ or body part is involved and how much it is affected. Depending on the severity of the defect and what body part is affected, the expected lifespan of a person with a birth defect may or may not be affected.

Most birth defects are caused by genetic or environmental factors or a combination of the two (multifactorial birth defects). In most cases, however, the cause is unknown.

Genetic or inherited causes include:

  • chromosomal defects – caused by too few or too many chromosomes, or problems in the structure of the chromosomes, such as Down syndrome and extra copy of chromosome 21 and sex chromosome abnormalities
  • single gene defects – a mutation in one gene causes the defect
  • dominant inheritance – when one parent (who may or may not have the disease) passes along a single faulty gene, such as achondroplasia and Marfan syndrome
  • recessive inheritance – when both parents, who do not have the disease, pass along the gene for the disease to the child, such as cystic fibrosis and Tay Sachs

An environmental cause can include a drug, alcohol or a disease the mother has that can increase the chance for the baby to be born with a birth defect. An agent that can cause a birth defect is known as a teratogen.

Multifactorial birth defects are caused by a combination of genes and environmental exposures. In other words, a person can inherit a gene that increases sensitivity to an environmental trigger. Examples include cleft lip or palate, certain heart defects, and neural tube defects.

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