Congenital defects, or birth defects, happen while a baby is still in the mother’s womb. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), one out of every three babies in the United States is born with such a congenital condition. The most common types are problems of the heart, neural tubes, and gastrointestinal system, as well as structural and genetic defects.
Heart defects typically result when a baby’s heart fails to develop fully in the womb. The heart may have holes or narrow valves that prohibit the normal flow of blood. These are the most common congenital defects, with up to one in every 100 newborns in the United States being affected. Not all heart defects are serious, however, and many children born with heart abnormalities are able to lead normal lives.
Neural tube defects occur when the tube that develops between a baby’s brain and spinal cord does not close completely during gestation. Spina bifida is a neural tube defect that occurs as a result of the spinal column failing to properly enclose the spinal cord. Spina bifida can cause paralysis and even death in some cases.
Genetic defects are congenital problems that occur in babies whose parents carry certain genes that they pass on to their children. Parents do not necessarily have to have a condition to be a carrier of the gene. Cystic fibrosis is a common genetic disorder that causes difficulty breathing and digesting food. Down syndrome causes facial abnormalities and mental retardation that can range from mild to severe. Down syndrome can also cause other health problems, such as heart problems.
Structural defects are caused by abnormal development in the womb, and generally result in congenital anomalies of different parts of the body. Two of the most common structural defects are oral clefting and clubfoot. Oral clefting results in an opening between the lip and nose, or between the roof of the mouth and the nasal passages. Oral clefts are usually surgically repaired shortly after birth. Clubfoot is characterized by a malformation of the foot and ankle. Newborns with clubfoot are placed in a cast shortly after birth to help correct the defect.
Gastrointestinal defects can affect the esophagus, intestines, stomach, or rectum. Sometimes, these body structures fail to develop properly. Gastrointestinal defects can make it difficult for the newborn to eat or digest food. Most gastrointestinal defects can be corrected with surgery shortly after birth.