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What can cause a baby to be born with a disability?

Portrait of a beautiful little girl with Down syndromе

Physical disabilities are disabilities that result in impaired bodily functions, including body movements, sight, hearing, and speech abilities.

What causes a baby to have physical disabilities?

Birth defects can be caused by:

  • genetics
  • lifestyle choices and behaviors
  • exposure to certain drugs and chemicals
  • infection during pregnancy
  • a combination of these factors
  • However, the exact cause of certain birth defects is often unknown.


Mother or father can pass genetic disorders to their babies. Genetic disorders occur when genes become defective due to mutations, or changes.

In some cases, genes or parts of genes may be missing.

These defects occur at conception and often cannot be prevented.

Certain disabilities may exist throughout the family history of one or both parents.

Non-genetic causes

The causes of some birth defects can be difficult or impossible to identify.

However, certain behaviors greatly increase the risk of birth defects.

This includes smoking, using illegal drugs, and drinking alcohol while pregnant.

Other factors, such as exposure to toxic chemicals or viruses, also increase the risk.

What are the risk factors for birth defects?

All pregnant women are at risk of giving birth to children with birth defects.

The risk increases under one of the following conditions:

  • family history of birth defects or other genetic disorders
  • drug use, alcohol consumption, or smoking during pregnancy
  • maternal age 35 years or older
  • inadequate prenatal care
  • untreated viral or bacterial infections, including sexually transmitted infections
  • use of certain high-risk drugs, such as isotretinoin and lithium

Women with pre-existing medical conditions, such as diabetes, are also at a higher risk of having children with birth defects.

Common birth defects

Birth defects are usually classified as structural or functional and developmental.

Structural defects are when certain body parts are lost or disabled.

The most common structural defects are:

  • heart defects
  • cleft lip or palate, when there is a gap or crevice in the lip or roof of the mouth
  • spina bifida, when the spinal cord doesn’t develop properly
  • clubfoot, when the foot is pointing in instead of forward

Functional or developmental birth defects cause parts or systems of the body to not function properly.

This often leads to intellectual or developmental disabilities.

Functional or developmental birth defects include metabolic defects, sensory problems, and nervous system problems.

Metabolic defects cause problems with the baby’s body chemistry.

The most common types of functional or developmental birth defects include:

  • Down syndrome, which causes delayed physical and mental development
  • Sickle cell disease, which occurs when red blood cells become deformed
  • cystic fibrosis, which damages the lungs and digestive system

Some children face physical problems associated with specific birth defects.

However, many children do not show any visible abnormalities.

Defects can sometimes go undetected for months or even years after the child is born.

Reference : Birth Defects: Causes, Symptoms, and Diagnosis

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