Congenital heart defects are present at birth and are conditions which affect the way a baby's heart is formed. The causes of most congenital heart defects are not well understood.
Research suggests that there may be certain prevention activities that a mother (and father) can do to help increase the chance of having a baby with a healthy heart. These prevention actions start even before the woman may even realize she is pregnant. Approaches include avoiding tobacco smoke, being checked for diabetes and controlling blood sugars, taking folic acid and maintaining a healthy weight.
The chart below describes several of the risk factors that have been linked to congenital heart defects and what mothers (and fathers) can do about them. It is important that families understand that even if a mother follows these guidelines, her child may still be born with a congenital heart defect.
Seven steps for primary prevention and health promotion for baby and mother*
Modifiable Risk Factor
|1. Take a multivitamin with folic acid daily |
Take Folic acid, 400 mcg (0.4) mg) or more, from before the pregnancy starts.
Avoid taking too much retinol (>10,000 IU), a specific form of vitamin A (the other form, beta carotene is fine).
|2. Promote healthy life and habits|
Maintain a healthy weight, regular physical activity, and stay on a healthy diet.
See a primary care doctor regularly, make sure you are healthy and ok to get pregnant, and check that any medications you are on are safe in pregnancy. (Preconception Care).
|3. Screen/Target chronic illnesses||Talk to your doctor if you have a chronic condition such as diabetes (may be unrecognized), epilepsy, PKU, high blood pressure, or if you are taking medications. |
|4. Screen/stop smoking, alcohol use ||Even second hand smoke is a problem in pregnancy.|
|5. Screen/assess medication use|
Check with your physician or with teratogen information service (OTIS/ENTIS). Retinoic acid and a few other medications are known risk factors for heart defects.
MotherToBaby: a service of the Organization of Teratology Information Specialists (OTIS)
European Network Teratology Information Services (ENTIS)
|6. Avoid close contact with ill individuals, especially with febrile illnesses||In addition, stay up to date with immunizations, including rubella. Treat high fever early. |
|7. Avoid exposure to heavy metals, herbicides, pesticides and organic solvents||This is at work and at home, and includes both yourself and a spouse/partner.|
* Based on Jenkins et al, 2007, with modifications.
The CHPHC realizes that much more needs to be done to identify the causes of congenital heart defects, reduce known risk factors, and ensure optimal health among those living with a congenital heart defect. For this reason, the CHPHC supports initiatives-including investigation, research, and evaluation aimed at improving the knowledge and practice of prevention. In particular, the CHPHC places strong emphasis on factors that can be modified to benefit public health, not only for newborns but adults living with congenital heart disease.