Problems With the Baby: Birth Defects

ultrasound pregnant belly
Pregnancy is a normal life event. Eighty-five per cent of all pregnancies have normal outcomes. The remaining 15% of pregnancies may be high-risk to some degree but still the vast majority will result in a healthy baby. However, in rare circumstances, things can go wrong with the baby’s growth or development during pregnancy. The baby may have developmental problems in one or more of his organ systems. These are called congenital abnormalities, otherwise known as birth defects. About 3% of all births are affected by birth defects. The baby may also have fetal growth restriction, which leads to a low birth weight.

Birth defects and fetal growth restriction sometimes arise when the pregnant mother is exposed to harmful substances called teratogens. These include infections and certain medications, chemicals, alcohol, and recreational drugs. Birth defects may also be caused by chromosome or genetically determined disorders. However, in 40% to 60% of all birth defects, the cause remains unknown.

Some birth defects can present obvious social challenges for the baby’s parents, and for the child herself as she gets older, especially if the condition is left untreated. Parents usually dream of having a “perfect” baby, and they may feel disappointed when they realize that their baby has a birth defect. They may go through many emotions, including shock, denial, sadness, and anger, before they can finally accept what is happening. Parents often do not realize that surgery and other forms of medical therapy can be very helpful in the treatment of some birth defects.  

For information about caring for a baby who has health issues related to development during pregnancy, see "Caring for the Very Ill Newborn Baby."

Nicolette Caccia, MEd, MD, FRCSC

Andrew James, MBChB, FRACP, FRCPC

Rory Windrim, MB, MSc, FRCSC