Dads and birth defects

cute coupleWe know so many things that a woman can do both before and during pregnancy to help reduce the risk of birth defects. But what about dads?

A paternal exposure is something the father of a baby is exposed to before conception or during his partner’s pregnancy. Some paternal exposures can damage the quality of a man’s sperm. This includes changes in sperm size, shape, number, or function. These changes can result in infertility or make it more difficult for a woman to become pregnant.

However, a father does not share a blood connection with the baby. So any medications, chemicals, or harmful substances that are in his body during a pregnancy are not passed to the developing baby. But, a dad’s health before and during pregnancy can still affect the health of his partner and his baby.

Here are some paternal exposures that may cause problems:

Alcohol, tobacco, street drugs

Use of these substances by a father before and during pregnancy has not been shown to cause birth defects but they may affect fertility.

Cigarette smoking can cause problems for a pregnant woman and the baby. If the dad smokes, his pregnant partner can be exposed to secondhand smoke. Secondhand smoke is smoke you breathe in from someone else’s cigarette. If a woman is exposed to secondhand smoke during pregnancy, it can cause the baby to be born at a low birthweight.

And secondhand smoke is very dangerous to a baby after he is born. Babies who are around secondhand smoke are at increased risk of health problems, including pneumonia, ear infections, asthma, and bronchitis. They’re also more likely to die of SIDS.

Chemotherapy and radiation

When a man undergoes chemotherapy or radiation, his sperm may be affected. After treatment is over, sperm production may return to normal, but it is important to discuss reproduction plans with your health care provider. He may suggest that you wait anywhere from 1-5 years to try to have a baby. The length of time will depend on the type of treatment. Sometimes sperm banking prior to treatment may be recommended.

Workplace exposures

According to MotherToBaby, “There have been a number of studies looking at reproductive health of men who are exposed to various substances in the workplace including lead, organic solvents, pesticides and radiation. Some studies suggest that such exposures may be associated with decreased sperm production, increased sperm abnormalities, decreased fertility, and an unproven increased risk for miscarriage in the partners of these workers. However, none of the workplace exposures in men have been associated with an increased risk for birth defects.” Although this seems like good news, it is important to know that if a man is exposed to materials such as lead, mercury, or pesticides in the workplace, it is possible to carry trace amounts on clothes and shoes, and bring them into the home. For this reason, fathers exposed to these substances should take extra precautions. Make sure all appropriate safety equipment (gloves, gowns, and masks) is being worn. And while there is currently no data available regarding how this may affect fertility or a pregnancy, it may be best to change clothes and shoes before entering the house, just to be safe.

Know your family’s health history

Your family health history is a record of any health conditions and treatments that you, your partner and everyone in both of your families have had. It is possible that conditions that run in the father’s family can be passed on to your baby. Taking a family health history of both parents can help you make important health decisions. Knowing about health conditions before or early in pregnancy can help you and your health care provider decide on treatments and care for your baby.

Have questions? Text or email us at AskUs@marchofdimes.org.

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