Link between birth defects and nutrition

Birth defects are structural or functional abnormalities that are present at birth and usually cause disabilities and even early death among children. However, with proper maternal nutrition before conception and all throughout pregnancy, most of these defects can be easily averted.

Neural tube defects (problems in brain and spine development), among them spina bifida and anencephaly are quite common.

These are defects that can cause nerve damage and paralysis and sometimes even death due to inadequate brain development. These defects can however be prevented through adequate intake of folic acid (Vitamin B9) through a multivitamin supplement and diet.

These nutrients are especially important during the first trimester as it is the period during which the foetus brain and spinal cord develops. A pregnant woman requires about 400 micrograms of folic acid per day, from foods like leafy greens, whole grains, orange juice and peas.

Lack of Vitamin B12 can also contribute to neural tube defects. Sources include dairy, red meat, chicken and eggs. Women at risk of this deficiency are those that follow a restrictive diet or those who have intestinal conditions that prevent the absorption of some vitamins. Advice should therefore be sought on how to cover this gap during pregnancy.

Cleft palate is another common birth defect whereby the palate does not close completely. It is mainly caused by inadequate folic acid as well as Vitamin A in a pregnant woman’s diet. Caution should however, be taken to source Vitamin A from dietary sources only since supplementation could pose a risk of toxicity in pregnancy. Foods rich in vitamin A include bright yellow to orange coloured foods as well as egg yolk and liver.

Taking alcohol during pregnancy predisposes an infant to foetal alcoholic syndrome, whereby a baby is born smaller than normal and has poor developmental problems that last throughout their life. Alcohol is therefore a big no, no for pregnant and nursing mothers.