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Pregnancy health centre

Birth defects: Fears about your unborn child?

WebMD Feature
Medically Reviewed by Dr Rob Hicks

Worrying that something is wrong with their baby is a fear for many expectant parents.

It’s worth remembering the vast majority of babies in the UK are born healthy but the latest statistics suggest that around 1 in 50 babies is born with what’s classed as a birth defect.

It seems a scary figure but many of the conditions are mild and can be easily treated. Some are more serious and can have long-term effects.

What are the most common birth defects?

The most common birth defects are:

A report by the British Isles Network of Congenital Anomaly Registers (BINOCAR) in 2014 estimated that there were an estimated 17,800 babies born with congenital anomalies in England and Wales in 2012.

It found the most common were congenital heart defects, which affected around 6 in 1,000 births.

Neural tube defects affected around 1 in 800 babies.

Gastroschisis, where the intestines develop outside the abdomen, also affected 1 in 2,500 babies.

Cleft lip affects around 1 in 700 babies.

When do you find out?

You can discover that a baby has a birth defect before birth, at birth, or after the child is born.

Ultrasound scans during pregnancy can be used to detect birth defects. The first scan at 8 to 14 weeks may pick up potential problems.

"Some anomalies can be spotted as early as an 8 week dating scan," says Dr Virginia Beckett a consultant in obstetrics and gynaecology at the Bradford Teaching Hospitals Trust.

The second scan, usually at 18 to 21 weeks, is called the anomaly scan as it checks for defects or anomalies in the baby.

The person who carries out the scan, the sonographer, will take measurements of the baby and look carefully at how it’s developing.

"Bone abnormalities are more often picked up at this scan as the light reflects better off the bones by this time," says Dr Beckett, who’s also a spokesperson for the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists.

Many potential problems can be picked up by this scan. If so, you will be told straight away, and given more tests and support.

A blood test combined with a nuchal translucency scan can determine your baby’s risk of Down’s syndrome. If it is high you may opt to have more tests.

"There’s very efficient screening for Down’s syndrome now with the combined test, which gives high levels of earlier diagnosis," says Joan Morris, professor of medical statistics at Queen Mary, University of London and editor of the BINOCAR report.

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