Can you reduce the risk of having a baby with spina bifida?

The spine (backbone) protects the spinal cord, a bundle of nerves that runs down the middle of your back. Spina bifida happens when the bones in the spine don’t form correctly, or when the spinal cord doesn’t form correctly, leaving an opening.

Spina bifida can affect how your baby’s brain, spine, spinal cord and meninges develop. Meninges are the tissues that cover and protect the brain and the spinal cord. About 1,600 babies are born with spina bifida in the United States each year. It’s the most common neural tube defect (also called NTD). NTDs are birth defects of the brain, spine and spinal cord.

Spina bifida can be diagnosed during pregnancy or after your baby’s is born. There are steps you can take before and during pregnancy to help prevent spina bifida in your baby.

What causes spina bifida?

We’re not sure what causes spina bifida, but these risk factors may play a role:

  • Ethnic group: Spina bifida is more common in Hispanics and Caucasians and less common among non-Hispanic African-Americans.
  • Folic acid:  Folic acid is a B vitamin that every cell in your body needs for normal growth and development. Taking folic acid before and during early pregnancy can help prevent NTDs in your baby. If you have spina bifida or if you’ve had a baby or a pregnancy with an NTD, talk to your health care provider about how much folic acid you should take before getting pregnant again.
  • Genes: Genes are a part of your body’s cells that stores instructions for the way your body grows and works. Genes are passed from parents to children. Sometimes changes in genes can cause conditions like spina bifida. You may be more likely to have a baby with spina bifida if you or your partner has spina bifida or if you already have a child with spina bifida.
  • Health conditions: Health conditions and medicines you take during pregnancy may play a role in causing spina bifida:
    • Get to a healthy weight before pregnancy.
    • Get treatment for health conditions like diabetes, a medical condition in which your body has too much sugar (called glucose) in your blood.
    • Tell your provider about any medicines and supplements you take. This includes any prescription and over-the-counter medicines, supplements and herbal products. Your provider may tell you to stop taking a medicine or switch you to one that’s safer during pregnancy.
  • Getting overheated during pregnancy: This may increase your chances of having a baby with spina bifida. Don’t use hot tubs or saunas when you’re pregnant. If you have a fever, take acetaminophen (Tylenol®) right away and call your provider.

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