Birth Defects

Common birth defects include heart defects, cleft lip and cleft palate, Down syndrome and spina bifida. Congenital heart defects are the most common type of birth defect in the United States, affecting nearly 1 percent of, or about 40,000, births per year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Birth defects can be minor to severe. “Some of these can be corrected by surgery and some can be treated by involving many different physicians with different specialties,” says Dr. Ahmad.

“The most important thing for the parents is they still have to love their baby because all babies are precious,” says Dr. Ahmad. “As these babies grow up, we have the ability to provide these babies developmental help to cope.” Parents can reach out to the Regional Center of Orange County for help and therapy, public school districts offer assistance to disabled children, and pediatricians are a great source of information and resources as well. “Try to learn as much about the condition as possible. This will help parents cope and make sure that their baby gets the best possible care,” says Dr. Ahmad.

One of the best things a pregnant woman can do for her baby is to take good care of her health. Not all birth defects can be prevented but there are some things a woman can do before and during pregnancy to increase the chance of having a healthy baby, says Dr. Ahmad. They include:

  • Taking folic acid before becoming pregnant and during pregnancy to help prevent neural tube defects (defects of the brain and spine).
  • If the woman is diabetic, making sure her diabetes is under control. Uncontrolled diabetes can lead to different malformations and problems for the baby.
  • Avoiding alcohol use while pregnant. Drinking alcohol while pregnant can cause fetal alcohol syndrome.


  • Number of babies born with a birth defect in the U.S. each year: About 1 in every 33
  • Babies born annually with Down Syndrome in the U.S. each year: 1 in 691
  • Approximate percent of infant deaths caused by birth defects: Over 20%

View the full feature on Kids and Birth Defects

Dr. Ahmad
Dr. Irfan Ahmad
CHOC Children’s Neonatologist


Dr. Ahmad served as chief fellow and completed his neonatal-perinatal fellowship at the University of California Irvine Medical Center. He completed his pediatric internship and residency at the University of Oklahoma in Oklahoma City. Dr. Ahmad is an associate professor of Pediatrics at UCI and also the director of the Surgical Neonatal Intensive Care Unit at CHOC. His current focus is on babies born with congenital anomalies that can be treated through surgery.

Dr. Ahmad’s philosophy of care: “My philosophy is to provide evidence based care which can benefit both the child and the family.”

Aga Khan University Medical College, Karachi, Pakistan

Neonatal-Perinatal Medicine Pediatrics

More about Dr. Irfan Ahmad

This article was featured in the Orange County Register on June 16, 2014, and was written by Amy Bentley.

Testing for Birth Defects

Advances in medicine have allowed doctors to diagnose birth defects and genetic conditions before a baby is born.Testing_Birth_Defects

Pregnant women older than 35, those with a history of miscarriages or health problems, and women with a family history of certain disorders or birth defects are often tested for birth defects, says Dr. Irfan Ahmad, a CHOC Children’s neonatologist.

During pregnancy, mothers-to-be can undergo genetic counseling and genetic testing. Specially trained professionals can help prospective or expectant parents learn about genetic conditions they may face and their chances of having a child with a genetic condition. Genetic counseling and testing can also screen for diseases more common in certain ethnic groups. This helps people make informed decisions about family planning, testing and treatment.

Pregnant women can also have an ultrasound, an amniocentesis, or a blood test called a Quad Screen. Dr. Ahmad says these tests can help to diagnose birth defects including Down syndrome, heart conditions, neural tube defects such as spina bifida, and intestinal obstructions.

When diagnosed during pregnancy, some of these problems can be fixed or treated with surgery. Knowing ahead of time about a possible birth defect or other medical problem with the fetus allows the parent and their physicians to better prepare for the birth and treatments or surgery that may be needed, says Dr. Ahmad.

“You can also speak to a specialist, including a neonatologist and a surgeon, before the baby is born to offer counseling,” Dr. Ahmad says. “We can have a plan in place for when the baby is born and what we will do, so parents and physicians are prepared.”

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