For Families

What Causes Birth Defects?

The underlying causes of individual birth defects are largely unknown, with a high percentage of infant birth defects having no known cause. While the direct causes of birth defects may not be fully understood, there are known risk factors that affect birth defects prevalence. For example: drinking alcohol during pregnancy, smoking during pregnancy, low blood folate levels, poorly controlled blood sugar levels in diabetic mothers, and maternal infections are all associated with increased risk of having a baby born with a birth defect.

Can I Reduce the Risk of Birth Defects?

Although not all birth defects can be prevented, there are steps that you can take before and during pregnancy to improve your chances of a healthy pregnancy. According to the CDC, to help increase your chances of having a healthy baby follow these guidelines:

  • Get as healthy as you can before you get pregnant
  • Discuss reproductive life planning with your partner and provider
  • Get 400 micrograms (mcg) of folic acid every day
  • See a healthcare professional regularly
  • Manage chronic health conditions, such as diabetes, hypertension, and mental health needs
  • Strive to reach and maintain a healthy weight
  • Eat a healthy diet that includes fruits, vegetables, whole grains, low fat diary, and lean proteins
  • Be physically active
  • Getting a medical checkup
  • Taking any medications both prescription and over the counter
  • Your family history
  • Vaccinations
  • Discuss any travel plans with your provider before and during pregnancy.

Please visit the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for the most current information.


Discuss reproductive planning with your partner and provider, improve health behaviors, manage chronic conditions, begin folic acid supplementation, and plan and space your pregnancies.



Take steps to ensure a healthy pregnancy, such as maintaining a balanced diet and taking prenatal vitamines. Do not drink alcohol or use substances which may harm your pregnancy. Discuss all medication and supplement use with your provider.



Continue to avoid tobacoo, alcohol, an dother illicit substances which may harm your pregnancy. Discuss your birth plan with your provider and plan for your child's medical home needs. 



Ensure your child receives all necessary medical care to treat or manage health conditions, including routine wellness visits. Explore and make use of supportive services outlined on this page, which may help manage the financial burden of care.



Continue to make sure your child attends Well-Child visits. Refer to the Tennessee Early Intervention System (TEIS) to explore services for young children with disabilities or other developmental delays.


Transition to Adulthood

There are resources for adults with disabilities and chronic health conditions. Make use of the supportive services outlined on this page.

Many birth defects will be diagnosed prenatally or shortly after the baby born. Some may not be diagnosed until later in life (often within the first few years).

  • Reproductive life planning
  • Genetic Counseling / Screening
  • Ultrasound
  • Screening and diagnostic tests (Fetal Nuchal Translucency test, Quad screening, Carrier screening, amniocentesis, etc.)
  • Physical examination after birth
  • Newborn Screening (performed 24-36 hours after your baby is born)
    • Genetic screening: All infants born in Tennessee must have a newborn screening specimen submitted to the Tennessee State Laboratory to be screened for certain genetic conditions that can cause serious illness and death if not detected and treated early.
    • Hearing Screening: The newborn hearing screening program is responsible for assuring all infants born in Tennessee received a hearing screening before discharge or prior to one month of age.
  • Critical Congenital Heart Disease (CCHD) screening
    • Congenital Heart Disease is the most common birth defect and may be detected during either the prenatal or postnatal period. Pulse oximetry screening is often performed within 24-48 hours after your baby is born but may be performed later during a prolonged hospital stay.
  • Routine wellness checks
  • New onset of symptoms / reported concerns

This information is collected and kept secure by the Tennessee Department of Health. The Tennessee Birth Defects Surveillance System (TNBDSS) does a report on birth defects every year. No information that identifies any baby or person is contained in the report.

Children's Special Services may provide coverage for comprehensive medical care and other non-medical resources for children with physical disabilities and special health care needs from birth to 21 years of age. Diagnostic and financial eligibility criteria must be met to participate in the program. The CSS program has two components: medical services and care coordination.

The Tennessee Early Intervention System provides services to infants and young children who have disabilities or other developmental delays. The TEIS program is a critically important program to supporting young children and their families to reach their optimal development.

Family Voices of Tennessee is a program of the Tennessee Disability Coalition, that provides emotional and educational support to the families of these children.

KidCentral TN is a free, one-stop resource for Tennessee families to raise healthy and happy kids. Created by the Governor's Children's Cabinet, KidCentral TN features articles on health, education, development and more. It also includes a searchable directory for state-sponsored services for children and families.

Disability Pathfinder helps people with disabilities, their family members, educators, and other professionals find and access resources, support, and services available to meet their needs.

March of Dimes is a nonprofit organization committed to ending preventable maternal health risks and death, ending preventable preterm birth and infant death and closing the health equity gap for all families.

A Medical Home is made of the patient and family, health care providers (doctors, nurses and therapists), insurance companies and community partners (schools and community resources).

This document is not authorized for external print or distribution.

Partnering with your Doctor Booklet English 

Partnering with your Doctor Booklet Spanish

For further information, including diagnosis-specific support, please visit our "Additional Resources" page