Birth defects are caused by a number of different factors, some more controllable than others. While some birth defects are hereditary, others are caused by environmental factors.
Missing chromosomes and other genes that don’t work properly can lead to malformations in a newborn baby’s body that cannot be prevented by an unborn baby’s environment. However, a mother’s activities during pregnancy do play a large role in determining the health of her baby at birth.
Certain illnesses in the mother during pregnancy, such as German measles and rubella, have been shown to increase the risk of certain birth defects. The use of substances such as alcohol, tobacco, and illicit drugs also has been shown to make newborns more susceptible to defects.
The use of some medications during pregnancy has been linked to an increased risk of certain birth defects. Research has linked ingestion of valproic acid, found in the anti-seizure drug Depakote, to spina bifida, cleft palate, and malformations of the heart, brain, and spinal cord.
Zoloft, an antidepressant, has been tied to a number of infant heart problems, including atrial and ventricular septal defects, transposition of the great arteries, and tetrology of fallot. Studies have also tied Zoloft use to persistent pulmonary hypertension of the newborn (PPHN), craniosynostosis, and club foot.
Women who are pregnant are advised to talk to their doctors about which drugs are safe to take and how to care for themselves to provide the best possible environment for their babies’ growth.