What are the Most Common Fetal Defects?

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  • Written By: Steve R.
  • Edited By: Kristen Osborne
  • Last Modified Date: 24 January 2020
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When a woman becomes pregnant, it can be a joyous time. However, it can also be a stressful time, as more than 4,000 types of birth defects exist with some of the most common being heart defects, oral clefting, cystic fibrosis, and Down syndrome. In the United States alone, one out of 33 babies is born with some type of birth defect. Fetal defects can be divided into three categories: multi-factorial birth defects, chromosomal birth defects, and single-gene defects. The majority of birth defects are contracted during the first trimester of pregnancy. Fetal defects produce some type of disability for the baby and can sometimes even result in death.

Nearly one-third of all fetal defects are heart defects, making this one of the most common birth defects. Heart abnormalities may arise in as many as one out of every 100 delivered babies. The reason heart defects are so common is because the heart is a complex organ. When the organ develops, there are more chances for something to go awry.


Heart defects in newborns can come in many forms and can be mild or severe. Atrial and ventricular septal defects occur when a baby is born with a hole in its heart. The hole prevents circulating blood from becoming completely oxygenated. Other heart abnormalities can include a narrow aorta and an underdeveloped left portion of the heart. Heart abnormalities can develop due to multiple factors in the first three months of pregnancy, including alcohol abuse, infection, and the use of certain medications.

Another common fetal defect that affects approximately one of every 700 births is oral clefting. This birth defect occurs early in the development of a baby and involves the failure of the upper lip and roof of the mouth forming abnormally. The condition has different degrees of severity and can affect both sides of the face. The exact reason clefting occurs is unknown, but it is thought to be the result of a combination of environmental and genetic components.

Fetal defects can also be caused by genetics. Many people are carriers of the gene for cystic fibrosis. Twenty-five percent of babies with two parents who have the gene will develop the disorder. Cystic Fibrosis is a disease mostly occurring in Caucasians that causes babies to have difficulty breathing and digesting food.

Down syndrome, a chromosome disorder that occurs in approximately one of every 800 births, occurs when babies are born with an additional chromosome. Children with Down syndrome have distorted facial features, varying intellectual disabilities, and other health issues. The older the pregnant woman, the higher the risk her baby may develop Down syndrome.

Spina bifida is another common birth defect. This condition occurs in one of every 2,500 births in the United States. The condition affects the spine of a baby and can lead to paralysis and bladder disorders. Other fetal defects may affect the gastrointestinal tract, eyes, and muscles.


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