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Children and Youth with Special Health Care Needs (CYSHCN): Birth Defects

Promoting quality care for children and youth with special health care needs in Wisconsin.

WCYSHCN people

What are birth defects?

Birth defects are common and can affect any organ or body system. Some birth defects are easily seen, like a missing or malformed limb. Other birth defects are very difficult to recognize, such as a rare metabolic disorder. Birth defects may become evident at different times—during pregnancy, at birth, in early childhood, or even later in life. Birth defects may be caused by many things: genetic errors, toxic substances, drugs or medications, environmental influences, infections during pregnancy, physical injury to the baby before birth, or by unknown causes. In fact, about two thirds of birth defects have no known cause.

According to the March of Dimes, more than 4,500 different birth defects have been identified. Together, these birth defects cause more than 20% of all infant deaths in the United States.

What is the effect of birth defects?

Birth defects can cause relatively minor problems, such as an extra finger or a skin birthmark. Some birth defects cause major problems, such as severe intellectual disability, abnormal growth and development, or death. The majority of infant deaths due to birth defects are caused by heart, respiratory, nervous system, or chromosomal defects.

In Wisconsin, approximately 2,000 infants are born with a birth defect each year, impacting 3% of all births. Birth defects are a substantial cause of childhood morbidity and long-term disability and are the fifth leading cause of years of potential life lost. Birth defects are also expensive. In Wisconsin, the estimated lifetime cost of birth defects for infants born in a given year exceeds $140 million.

What can I do to prevent birth defects?

Not all birth defects can be prevented. However, there are things that a woman can do before and during pregnancy to increase her chance of having a healthy baby:

  • See your health care provider regularly and start prenatal care as soon as you think you might be pregnant.
  • Get 400 micrograms (mcg) of the B vitamin, folic acid, every day. Eating foods fortified with folic acid and taking supplements with folic acid at least one month before getting pregnant can prevent major birth defects in the brain and spine.
  • Avoid drinking alcohol, smoking, or using “street” drugs while pregnant.
  • Talk to a health care provider about any medications you are taking or thinking about taking. This includes prescription and over-the-counter medications and dietary or herbal supplements. Do not stop or start taking any type of medication without first talking with a doctor.
  • Learn how to prevent infections during pregnancy. Some infections can be harmful to the developing baby.
  • Keep any medical conditions (e.g., diabetes) under control, before becoming pregnant and throughout pregnancy.
  • Strive to reach and maintain a healthy weight before getting pregnant. Obesity can increase a pregnant woman’s risk of complications during pregnancy and also of birth defects for the baby.

Wisconsin Birth Defects Registry - Why is it necessary?

To prevent birth defects, we need to know more about what causes them. To identify causes, we need to know the frequency of individual birth defects. We also need to compare the occurrence of specific birth defects to the presence of factors that could cause them.

Wisconsin Birth Defects Registry Information for Families

Wisconsin Birth Defects Registry Parent/Guardian Request to Remove Identifiers Form

For more information on birth defects:

Last revised July 20, 2022