FRIDAY, July 2 (HealthDay News) -- There are few things more chilling to expectant parents than the possibility that their child might come into the world with a birth defect that threatens the child's health or life.
But there's a lot that a woman can do before and during pregnancy to reduce the child's risk for developing a birth defect, doctors say. Most of these precautions are common-sense measures that apply to anyone who wants to lead a healthy life.
"Women of reproductive age should be cognizant of the fact they need to be healthy," said Dr. Michael Katz, senior vice president for research and global programs at the March of Dimes, a pediatrics professor emeritus at Columbia University and a consultant to New York-Presbyterian Hospital in New York City. "They should be living a healthy lifestyle anyway. It's not an extra chore. It's a good lifestyle."
About one in every 33 children born in the United States has some sort of birth defect, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Most birth defects develop during the first three months of pregnancy and involve some structural, functional or biochemical abnormality that results in the child's disability or death.
Heart defects are the most common, making up a fourth to a third of all birth defects, according to the CDC. About 1 of every 100 to 200 babies is born with a heart defect.
Heart defects are more common because the fetal development of the heart is complicated, with many opportunities for things to go wrong. "The heart is a very complex organism, and it comes together from many different forces developing in the embryo," Katz said.
Most often, newborns with heart defects have what's called an atrial septal defect or a ventricular septal defect. They are born with a hole in their heart.
"The heart has four chambers -- two on top called atrial, two on bottom calle
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