September is National Infant Mortality Awareness Month. Infant mortality is the number of babies under one year old that die from any cause. Infant mortality rate (IMR) can be defined as the number of deaths during the first year of life per 1,000 live births in a given year or period. According to the National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS), the top 4 causes of infant deaths for 2010 (our most recent data) were birth defects, disorders related to preterm birth, and low birth weight, and sudden infant death syndrome, better known as SIDS. According to NCHS, the infant mortality rate for the US in 2010 was 6.15 deaths per 1,000 live births. While this may seem like a low number, the toll to the families who are affected is enormous. We recognize infant mortality each September to raise awareness and remember those children lost.

Preconception health is a term used to describe women’s health before becoming pregnant. In the United Stated, approximately 50% of pregnancies are unplanned. This means that women who want to have children at any point in their lives should try to be as healthy as possible. It should also be noted that regardless of pregnancy intentions, health is an important matter for women to focus on throughout all stages of life.

According to the National Office on Women’s Health, the first most important areas of focus for preconception health and preparing for pregnancy include:

    • Folic Acid – Folic acid is a B vitamin that cells use when they copy DNA. Inadequate levels of Folic acid can cause birth defects such as spina bifida, which causes the highest number of infant deaths in the US every year. These birth defects form very early in pregnancy, before many women realize they are pregnant, so it is important to take folic acid every day. Folic acid is in prenatal vitamins and many multi-vitamins. It can also be found in green, leafy vegetables like spinach. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommend that all women of childbearing age consume 400 micrograms daily, and pregnant women consume up to 800 micrograms daily. Women trying to become pregnant or are pregnant should talk to their doctor about how much folic acid they need.  
    • Smoking and Alcohol Consumption Cessation – According to the March of Dimes, smoking during pregnancy is linked to birth defects and preterm birth, two of the largest contributors to infant mortality.  Mothers who smoke and drink during pregnancy can cause health problems for babies later in life. Also according to the March of Dimes, drinking alcohol during pregnancy can lead to miscarriage, low birth weight and preterm birth, and developmental problems later in life. Smoking and drinking too much alcohol is also harmful to women’s health. To prepare for a pregnancy, women should stop smoking and drinking alcohol.
    • Chronic Condition Control – It is important to make sure that any ongoing conditions such as diabetes, high blood pressure, being over or under weight, and asthma are being managed correctly. Chronic conditions can cause problems during pregnancy, and a pregnancy can also affect chronic conditions. Women should see their doctor to ensure chronic conditions are being managed correctly.
    • Prescription and Over-The-Counter Medications, Supplements and Vaccines – Some medications and supplements can cause problems during pregnancy, including birth defects. It is important to check with a doctor about anything you may be taking. Expecting mothers and those trying to get pregnancy should check with a physician to ensure they are up to date with vaccinations because certain diseases, such as chicken pox and rubella, can cause problems such as birth defects if they are contracted during pregnancy.
    • Avoid Contact with Harmful Chemicals, and Cat and Rodent Feces – Some chemicals can cause birth defects if a pregnant woman is exposed to them. Cat feces may contain a parasite that causes a disease called toxoplasmosis which causes birth defects, and rodents including hamsters and guinea pigs can have a virus called lymphocytic choriomeningitis that can be harmful to a baby. It is best to have someone else change cat litter and clean rodent cages to avoid exposure to these diseases during pregnancy. Ask a physician which chemicals to avoid while pregnant.

If a woman is thinking about becoming pregnant, it is also very important that she checks in with her primary care doctor. Whether planned or not, the goal is to make sure women are having the healthiest pregnancy possible, and that process begins pre-conception. For more information on preconception health, visit the Office on Women’s Health and the March of Dimes websites.

Remember to check back for our next post on the importance of fathers!