What Causes Birth Defects During Pregnancy?

When a child is born with a congenital defect or deformity at birth parents often try and think what may have caused the birth defect. According to the March of Dimes, many birth defects have unknown causes while about 40% of birth deformities are as a result of genetic, environmental factors or toxic medications that were taken during pregnancy.

Genetics may be the cause of some birth defects. A genetic cause of a birth defect happens when one or both of the parents pass an inherited defective gene or missing gene onto the developing baby. Some of the more common birth defects that are inherited or genetic include Cystic Fibrosis, Tay – Sachs Disease, and Fragile X Syndrome.

Chromosomal abnormalities can also result in birth defects or certain syndromes. If there is a disruption or damage to chromosomes that leads to either too many or not enough chromosomes, it could lead to a birth defect. Trisomy 13 or Down's syndrome occurs when there is an extra chromosome.

When there is no chromosomal or genetic explanation for a child's syndrome or birth abnormality, physicians may look at other potential causes of your child's birth defect, developmental delays, neurologic problems, mental retardation or cerebral palsy. There are scientific studies that link certain infections, chemicals, or toxic substances to the development of birth defects or certain syndromes. Some of the more common environmental factors that can lead to a birth defect are:

  • Infections during pregnancy such as Rubella (German Measles), toxoplasmosis and cytomegalovirus (CMV)
  • Alcohol consumption that can lead to Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS)
  • Insecticide exposure
  • Radiation and x-rays
  • Petroleum products or distillates
  • Heavy metal ingestion such as lead, gold or mercury
  • Cleaning solutions
  • Paint or solvents
  • Volatile Organic Compounds (VOC)

At times, pregnant mothers may be unaware that they have been exposed to certain toxic environmental causes of birth defects during their pregnancy because the toxins or poisons could be hidden in contaminated soil, locally grown fruits and vegetables, ground water, well water or in the air.

Working in certain occupations or industries can also expose a pregnant mother to chemicals, solutions, or solvents that can cause birth defects. Some work places that may expose the growing fetus to hazardous chemicals are:

  • Nail salons
  • Car or Automotive repair garages
  • Dry Cleaners
  • Paint factories
  • Printing places
  • Metal cleaning facilities
  • Agriculture
  • Beauty salons

If the mother or father of the unborn child did not work in an area where there are known toxins, the cause of the birth defect may be due to a prescribed medication the mother was taking just prior to conception, or becoming pregnant, or during the pregnancy. Common medications or drugs that have been linked to birth defects or deformities at birth are:

  • Zoloft (sertraline) which is a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI) manufactured and sold by Pfizer. It is used to treat depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), panic disorders and anxiety disorders. Mothers who took Zoloft while pregnant have had a baby born with birth defects such as clubbed foot, cleft lip, cleft palate, Persistent Pulmonary Hypertension (PPH), gastroschisis (intestines outside the body), heart defects, skull defects, brain malformations, spinal cord defects, mental retardation and developmental delays.
  • Topamax is a medication used for seizures, epilepsy or migraine headaches. Mothers who took Topamax during pregnancy have had children born with cleft lips or cleft palates.
  • Depakote or Valproic acid is used to treat seizures, mania, bipolar disease, manic-depressive disorder, and migraine headaches. A woman who takes Depakote during pregnancy may have an increased risk of having a baby with spina bifida, anencephaly, neural tube defects, atrial septal defects (ASD), ventricular septal defects (VSD), tetralogy of Fallot, cleft palate, craniosynostosis and other heart defects and birth defects that have also led to developmental delays.
  • Lexapro is an antidepressant that is a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI) manufactured by Forest Laboratories, which is pharmacologically very similar to Celexa (citalopram). Mothers who took Lexapro during pregnancy have had newborns born with abdominal defects, omphalocele, anal atresia, cardiac or heart defects, autism spectrum disorder, cleft lip, cleft palate, clubfoot, craniosynostosis, skull defects, limb deformities, neural tube defects, spina bifida or Persistent Pulmonary Hypertension of the Newborn (PPHN).

Other medications that have been linked to neural tube defects or spina bifida are medications that block or prevent folic acid from being converted into its active metabolites. Medications such as trimethoprim, sulfasalazine, or Methotrexate are known to block the conversion of folic acid and can cause spinal cord birth defects if taken early on in the pregnancy when the spinal column is forming.

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