Abdominal Birth Defect on the Rise in Young Moms

An alarming new report from the CDC finds that the rate of a serious birth defect in the abdomen, called gastroschisis, has more than doubled. Could you be at risk?

Abdominal Birth Defect on the Rise in Young Moms Pavel Ilyukhin/Shutterstock

Pregnant women will do anything to protect their baby's health, but what if doctors don't know how to prevent a serious birth defect that's on the rise? That's what's happening with gastroschisis, a hole in baby's abdominal wall, which a new report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says has increased over the past 20 years—and they don't know why.

Babies of young moms most affected

Researchers looked at data from 14 states across the U.S., and found that from 1995 to 2012, the rate of gastroschisis more than doubled among all moms. "Previous studies have shown that gastroschisis has been increasing since the 1980s, so this study looked at gastroschisis to see if that increase has continued," study author Abbey Jones, M.P.H., an epidemiologist in the CDC's Birth Defects Branch, tells Fit Pregnancy. "Among mothers of all ages, gastroschisis increased in all race/ethnicities examined—non-Hispanic white, non-Hispanic black, and Hispanic."

But the biggest increase was seen among young moms. "The highest prevalence was among white teen mothers, and the largest increases in prevalence over the study period were seen in black teen mothers," Jones says. Among black moms under 20, the rate of gastroschisis increased a whopping 263 percent from 1995 to 2012. The CDC already knew that the birth defect was most common among young moms, but the large increase makes the situation even more concerning.

Unfortunately, the cause of gastroschisis is still unknown. "We don't know what is driving this increase in gastroschisis or why it is more common among young mothers," Jones says, declining to speculate further on the reasons it may develop. The underlying causes may be genetic, or a combination of genes and environmental factors—but that still doesn't explain why it's more likely in young women. According to this new report, the rise in gastroschisis isn't linked to the number of teen births, which actually declined during the same time period. So, further research is needed.

Is prevention possible?

With so little information about its causes, what can you do to reduce the chances of your baby having gastroschisis? Other research has linked the condition with alcohol and tobacco use, so definitely avoid them (which you should be already). Overall, Jones says following general guidelines for good health during pregnancy is the best advice. "Based on what is known about risk factors for gastroschisis, planning and preparing for a healthy pregnancy are important," she says. "This includes eating a healthy diet and striving for a healthy body weight before becoming pregnant; avoiding smoking, alcohol, or drug use; avoiding sexually transmitted diseases; and checking with a doctor about the safety of any prescription and non-prescription medicines."

The CDC estimates that 2,000 infants are born with gastroschisis in the United States each year. "It can be identified by routine tests done during pregnancy, and is often diagnosed by the second trimester," Jones says, either through blood work or during the 20-week anatomy scan. Babies with gastroschisis are born with a hole next to the belly button where the intestines can stick out. Sometimes other organs like the stomach and liver may also spill out as well.

Jones says that the defect is associated with increased risk for medical complications and can be life-threatening, and babies who were born with the condition may go on to have problems eating and digesting food. But the good news is that surgery shortly after birth can put everything back in its place and repair the abdomen, and many children go on to lead normal lives.