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How To Know When You Have a Birth Defects Case

Updated February 23, 2023 | By Wilson Kehoe Winingham staff

Birth defects (sometimes referred to as congenital disorders) are structural or functional irregularities that develop in a baby during pregnancy.

  • Birth defects can develop at any time during pregnancy, but most develop during the first trimester when a baby’s organs are taking shape.
  • Some birth defects can be diagnosed before a baby is born, others are diagnosed at birth, and still others may not be discovered until a child is older.
  • Some birth defects are visible, like a cleft lip or a missing or incompletely formed limb; others can’t be diagnosed without special testing, like metabolic, blood, or hormonal disorders.
  • Some birth defects respond to treatment, others require a lifetime of supportive care, and some are fatal.
  • Some birth defects are unavoidable, but others have preventable causes.

Birth defects sometimes result from medical malpractice or negligence on the part of a government agency, an employer, or a manufacturer.

If your baby was born with a birth defect and you suspect it was preventable, talk to an experienced birth defect lawyer to see if you can recover compensation for medical expenses, ongoing supportive care, and pain and suffering. 

Common Birth Defects

According to CDC statistics, these are the top 10 most common birth defects:

  1. Congenital (existing from birth) heart defects
  2. Cleft lip/cleft palate (split lip and/or roof of the mouth)
  3. Clubfoot (one or both feet twisted or out of position)
  4. Down syndrome (caused by an extra chromosome)
  5. Limb defects (part of or all of an arm or leg doesn’t form in the womb)
  6. Gastroschisis (intestines and/or other organs develop outside the body because of a hole in the abdominal wall)
  7. Rectal or intestinal atresia/stenosis (intestinal blockages)
  8. Spina bifida (spinal defects that can cause a range of physical and intellectual disabilities)
  9. Edwards syndrome (caused by an extra chromosome)
  10. Diaphragmatic hernia (a hole in the diaphragm that allows organs to move upward in the chest, affecting a baby’s ability to breathe normally)

There are many other congenital disorders besides these top 10 most common birth defects. The CDC and other websites have more extensive birth defect lists.

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What Causes Birth Defects?

The causes of birth defects are complex and not fully understood. In some instances, such as with Down syndrome, there is a clear genetic cause for a birth defect, but in most cases, there are probably multiple contributing factors. Researchers have not yet learned how these various factors work together to cause birth defects.

Here are some factors that affect the development of birth defects.

Genetic Causes

Genetics might be the first thing you think of in relation to birth defects, but it’s by no means the only factor. Some well-known congenital disorders like Down syndrome (extra chromosome) and cystic fibrosis (gene mutation) are caused by genetic factors. Researchers believe that some birth defects result from a combination of genetic and other factors.

Nutritional Deficiencies

A mother’s nutritional deficiencies can influence the development of some birth defects. For example, if a mother does not have enough folic acid in her diet, her baby is at a much higher risk for neural tube defects—severe brain and spine birth defects like spina bifida and anencephaly.

Illnesses, Infections, and Fevers

A developing baby can be affected by illnesses, infections, and fevers in the mother. Illnesses that may cause birth defects include diabetes and toxoplasmosis, a parasitic disease. Infections include rubella, some sexually transmitted diseases, and Zika virus.

Smoking, Drinking Alcohol, and Illicit Drug Use

Smoking, drinking alcoholic beverages, and using illicit drugs increase a baby’s risk of birth defects. Smoking is associated with an increased risk of cleft lip and cleft palate. Alcohol use during pregnancy can cause fetal alcohol syndrome.


According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), “nearly two-thirds of all pregnant women take up to four drugs during pregnancy and labor,” including prescription drugs, over-the-counter medications, and nutritional supplements.

Many drugs have been identified as teratogens—substances that cause developmental problems for babies in the womb. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) requires drugs to carry labels that indicate if they may cause birth defects. However, the FDA can only require such a label when the link between a drug and certain birth defects is known. The effects of many new and existing drugs on developing fetuses are not yet known.

If a doctor prescribes a teratogenic medication during pregnancy or a pharmacy fills a prescription incorrectly and a birth defect results, that could be grounds for a birth defect lawsuit. Medications shown to cause or contribute to birth defects include drugs that treat a wide range of illnesses, including depression, migraines, acne, high blood pressure, epilepsy, and cancer.

Environmental Toxins and Radiation

Environmental toxins and radiation can also cause birth defects.

Environmental toxins include pesticides used in landscaping and agriculture, industrial chemicals, and heavy metals like lead, cadmium, cobalt, and mercury. If you work at a plant nursery, on a farm, or in landscaping, you may have higher than usual levels of exposure to pesticides. Heavy metal exposure is higher than usual for construction workers, miners, and welders. In some rare instances, people are exposed to environmental toxins through contaminated water provided by their local water utility.

People who work near X-ray machines, in nuclear medicine, or in laboratories or industries that use radioactive materials may have higher than usual levels of exposure to radiation. In nuclear medicine, healthcare professionals use small amounts of radioactive material for medical diagnosis or treatment.

Employers must provide employees with a safe workplace and proper personal protective equipment. Manufacturers of industrial and medical equipment must ensure that their products are safe.

If you think exposure to environmental toxins or radiation may have caused your baby’s birth defect, contact a birth defect attorney to discuss your situation. If your exposure to such toxins or excess exposure occurred because of negligence on the part of an employer or manufacturer, you may be eligible to receive compensation.

Agent Orange Birth Defects

The US Veterans Administration has acknowledged that exposure to Agent Orange, an herbicide widely used by the US military in the 1960s and 1970s, caused birth defects in the children of veterans who served in Vietnam, Thailand, and the Korean demilitarized zone (the strip of land between South Korea and North Korea). Children of veterans who served in these areas between 1962 and 1975 and were born with Agent Orange birth defects are qualified to receive disability benefits from the VA.

In addition, some researchers believe that Agent Orange birth defects can affect not only the children of those who were exposed to Agent Orange but also their grandchildren. If you believe your child falls into this category, contact a birth defect lawyer to discuss your options.

How Are Birth Defects Diagnosed?

Some birth defects can be diagnosed during pregnancy through ultrasound, amniocentesis (tests done on a small amount of amniotic fluid extracted from the placenta), or blood tests. Besides these diagnostic tests, there may be no signs of birth defects during pregnancy. Many birth defects are diagnosed at birth or during the first years of a child’s life. This is especially true for birth defects that do not have obvious symptoms at the time of birth.

What’s the Difference between Birth Defects and Birth Injuries?

The main difference between birth defects and birth injuries is when they occur.

Birth defects occur during pregnancy. Birth injuries, however, generally happen during the process of labor and delivery.

Whether your baby has a birth defect or has suffered a birth injury, it’s essential to know that some birth defects and birth injuries are unavoidable, but others are due to the negligence of healthcare personnel.

Whether your baby was born with a birth defect or a birth injury, the experienced Indianapolis birth injury attorneys at Wilson Kehoe Winingham can help you determine if medical malpractice affected your baby’s condition.

How Do I Know When I Need a Malpractice Lawyer?

Doctors and other healthcare personnel must provide you with medical treatment that meets the accepted standard of care. If they fail to do something they should have done or make needless mistakes in your care, you may be able to file a medical malpractice lawsuit.

Examples of medical negligence include things like:

  • Improper diagnosis or treatment
  • Failing to diagnose a condition
  • Prescribing the wrong medication

For more information about medical malpractice, see our list of frequently asked questions about suing doctors.

If your child has a birth defect that may have resulted from exposure to environmental toxins or radiation and you believe that the exposure may have occurred due to the negligence of an employer, equipment manufacturer, or utility provider, we strongly encourage you to discuss the situation with a birth defect lawyer.

Contact a Birth Injury Attorney Today

Birth defects affect 1 out of every 33 children born in the US. Often, birth defects require years or even a lifetime of treatment and supportive care; more than $2.6 billion is spent annually on hospital costs for persons with birth defects. 

If your child has a birth defect that may be due to the negligence of healthcare providers, an employer, or any other third party, we urge you to contact the Indianapolis birth defect attorneys of WKW. The lawyers at WKW can help you care for your child by seeking the compensation you deserve. Call 317.920.6400 or fill out an online contact form for a free, no-obligation case evaluation.

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