How Common are Birth Defects?

I am a nurse at a local hospital and am constantly surprised by the number of babies that are born here with birth defects. How common are birth defects?

We know that significant birth defects occur in the general population in about 3 - 5 % of all pregnancies, in every hospital or delivery room in the world. Put another way, if you took 100 newborn babies in any nursery, 3 - 5 of them would have some type of birth defect.

Major birth defects include clefting of the lip, clubbing of the feet, extra fingers or toes, unusual shaping of the skull or facial features. Sometimes these problems may only show up through specialized testing done on the baby at birth. Birth defects can occur in the developing heart, in the kidneys, in the brain, in almost every structure of the baby.

Other problems that are recognized at birth may be minor changes that occurred as the baby was developing inside the womb. Minor birth defects occur in up to 15% of newborn babies. These changes may include the shape of the ears, fingers or toes, face and hair patterns. If 3 or more minor birth defects are seen in the same individual, these may be clues that a major birth defect or other underlying problem has also occurred.

When a newborn baby is seen to have either multiple minor birth defects, or a single major birth defect, it is important to have a genetic evaluation done to determine the causation. An evaluation may help the family better understand the cause of the problem. The chance of recurrence and the options available in management and family planning can also be discussed. Birth defects occur more often than many of us realize. However the incidence, or the number of babies born with birth defects in the general population, is the same in every hospital around the country. We would welcome any questions about birth defects, inherited conditions, mental retardation or other genetic matters from Lakeland Residents.