Top 6 Birth Defects Due to Prenatal Nutrition

Birth defects, such as neural tube defects, or congenital diaphragmatic hernia are leading causes of death in infants. According to medical studies, there might be a correlation between prenatal nutrition and some birth defects. A lack of certain nutrients or vitamins in the mother’s diet (such as Vitamin B9, Vitamin B12, or calcium) can seriously impact the baby’s health.

Therefore, having a balanced diet, and taking the right supplements before conception and during pregnancy is key in minimizing the risks. Read on to understand which nutrient deficiencies are likely to produce birth defects, and how to avoid them.

6 Birth Defects Caused by an Unhealthy Prenatal Nutrition

1. Neural Tube Defects

Neural tube defects, such as spina bifida and anencephaly, are problems of the brain or spine development, which begins during the first trimester of the pregnancy. There might be a link between a lack of vitamin B9, also known as folic acid, in the mother’s diet, and the risk of neural tube defects.

Administration of adequate amounts of folic acid before and during pregnancy, especially during the first trimester, helps prevent most neural tube defects. The required amount of folic acid is 400 micrograms per day, in the form of multivitamins or foods that contain folate, the natural form of folic acid. Foods rich in folate are leafy green vegetables, whole grains, orange juice, dried beans, peas, and fruit.

Another essential vitamin to prevent neural tube defects is vitamin B12. The requirement for vitamin B12 is 2.4 micrograms per day, and 2.6 micrograms per day during pregnancy. Good sources of vitamin B12 are dairy products, red meat, chicken, and eggs. Just as with folic acid, women need adequate intake of vitamin B12 prior to conception and during pregnancy to reduce the risk of neural tube defects.

2. Congenital Heart Disease

Women with a diet low in riboflavin (vitamin B2) and niacin (vitamin B3) are at risk of having children with congenital heart disease. Pregnant women should ask their doctor if they need extra intakes of Vitamins B2 and B3. They should also avoid diets rich in saturated fats.

Dairy products (low-fat or fat-free to avoid saturated fat), liver, and leafy greens are good sources of vitamin B2. Vitamin B3 is found in chicken, fish, liver, nuts, and whole grains.

3. Gastroschisis

Gastroschisis is a birth defect in which the baby’s abdominal wall shows a crack or tear. A pregnancy diet low in proteins and zinc is an important factor that can lead to gastroschisis. Also, women who have a low body mass index show a higher risk of having a baby with gastroschisis. Poor nutrition and smoking during pregnancy can also cause gastroschisis.

A healthy pregnancy diet should include around 71 grams of protein a day. Good sources of protein are poultry, lean meat, fish, eggs. Vegetarian mothers can take their proteins from nuts, seeds, beans, and peas, as well as soy products. The recommended daily allowance (RDA) for zinc during pregnancy is 11 milligrams daily. Great food sources of zinc are cereals and red meat.

4. Congenital Diaphragmatic Hernia

In the list of major birth defects due to pregnancy diet, we must include congenital diaphragmatic hernia. This disorder is characterized by an opening in the diaphragm that causes the abdominal contents to reach into the chest cavity.

Women who have a diet low in vitamin B12, vitamin E, calcium, retinol, and selenium show a higher risk of having children with congenital diaphragmatic hernia. Vitamin supplementation can greatly reduce this risk. Vitamin B12 is naturally present in animal products, such as meat, milk, and eggs.

Pregnant women need around 1,000 milligrams of calcium a day. The best natural sources of calcium are dairy products, but also broccoli and fruit. A healthy intake of Vitamin E is of 3 milligrams per day, which pregnant women should achieve from a well-balanced pregnancy diet only. Good natural sources of Vitamin E are olive oil, cherries, blueberries, peanuts, hazelnuts, and boiled eggs.

5. Cleft Palate

Cleft palate is a birth defect in which the palate does not close completely during fetal development. Women with a restricted diet, or those with an inadequate nutrition are at risk of having a child with cleft palate. Lack of folic acid and vitamin A in the mother’s diet are associated with this isolated cleft palate.

The standard of measurement for vitamin A is RAE (retinol activity equivalents). Pregnant women should include around 770 micrograms RAE per day. Fruits and vegetables, particularly the yellow and orange ones, which are rich in beta-carotene, are great sources of Vitamin E.

6. Fetal Alcohol Syndrome

Doctors say that women should avoid alcohol consumption during pregnancy to prevent the fetal alcohol syndrome. These babies are smaller, and present poor development and health problems that can last a lifetime. Therefore, alcohol should be excluded from the pregnancy diet, as the defects caused by fetal alcohol syndrome are irreversible.


Proper nutrition is very important for both mother and baby. Prenatal vitamin supplements can provide the micronutrients that are so important for both mother and baby. Iron and calcium supplements are very important for child development. However, pregnant women should not take any supplements without seeking medical advice first.

A poor diet not only increases the risk of birth defects, but it can also contribute to premature birth, pregnancies not being carried to term, and high-risk pregnancies. The mother needs to understand the importance of nutrition during pregnancy, and adapt her diet to the child’s needs. Make sure you strictly follow your doctor’s advice to avoid birth defects due to pregnancy diet.

Recommended Read: Can You Get a Cavity Filled When Pregnant?


  • Hey, Gabriel!

    Thank you very much for the explanation of the birth defects due to improper nutrition. I want to know if it’s possible to receive all the needed nutrients and vitamins for pregnancy from the natural foods and drinks and not to take vitamins and minerals in the form of supplements? There are a lot of harmful side effects from supplementation. Today a lot of people in the world haven’t access to modern supplements and pills but still they born the healthy babies. What do you think?

    Thank you again!

    • Hello Katia!

      Great question! Most pregnant women have folate deficiency, iron deficiency, or omega-3 deficiency. You should check if you have any of these common deficiencies with your doctor. Ask your doctor about prenatal vitamins that are whole food-based, gluten-free or non-GMO. Organic prenatal vitamins are great supplements during pregnancy, but always check with your doctor what is best for you.

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