Despite years of research, understanding contributing factors to ASD, or Autism Spectrum Disorder, is still a guessing game in many respects. Though research does suggest some avenues for lowering a child’s chances of ASD during gestation, there are no absolutes. Many factors, including genetics and environment, likely play a role in whether or not a baby is born with ASD. Genetics are certainly out of a mother’s control and so are certain environmental factors.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 1 in 68 school-aged children are somewhere on the autism spectrum. Many parents don’t realize their babies may have autism until around 18 months when pediatricians typically screen for it. If you are concerned because your baby isn’t hitting milestones, talk to your doctor about testing for ASD earlier.
Being proactive during your pregnancy to avoid ASD may be effective in some cases. Here are some ways that may minimize the risk of your child being born with ASD.
1. Avoid toxins
Though the research is only two years old, one study found that a mother’s exposure to certain pollutants, metals, and several kinds of pesticides increases the risks for ASD. Chemicals to avoid include some plastics, flame-retardants, and even certain cosmetics.
Check makeup labels for unfamiliar ingredients. Consider limiting canned foods, which contain aluminum, and plastic or aluminum water bottles. The blanket term “fragrance” on an ingredient label refers to a variety of substances that aren’t required to be listed individually. They can be found in everything from baby powder to laundry soap. Because some of these substances may be harmful in ways that we don’t yet understand, it might be best to use fragrance-free alternatives instead.
2. Watch medications
Women who take certain prescription drugs during their pregnancy may increase the likelihood of their children having ASD. Many studies have found connections between antidepressants, particularly SSRIs, and increased occurrences of ASD. What remains unclear is whether this is the result of the mother’s depressive disorder or the medication she takes for depression. If you are pregnant and on an antidepressant, do not discontinue taking it without first discussing the consequences with your doctor.
Valproate, a drug used to treat epilepsy, may also increase the risk of ASD, though skipping that medication can put both mother and fetus in danger. Be sure to discuss the pros and cons of each with a doctor before deciding to skip or take any prescription or over-the-counter drug.
3. Increase folic acid intake
Any woman who is actively trying to get pregnant or capable of pregnancy should be taking folic acid to prevent birth defects. Additionally, a mother’s folic acid intake may decrease the chance of her child having ASD. Pregnant women should take 400-600 mcg of folic acid daily. Increasing folic acid will also decrease the chance of a premature birth, another factor that increases ASD risks.
4. Take time between pregnancies
Women who have pregnancies between two to five years apart have the lowest chance of having a child diagnosed with autism. According to a study done in Finland by the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, babies conceived less than 12 months after another birth had a 50% higher chance of being on the autism spectrum as opposed to those with larger windows between births, though the reasons are unknown.
Conversely, more than five years between pregnancies lead to a 30% higher likelihood of a child being diagnosed with ASD. One contributing factor here may be the age of the parents at conception. Older parents tend to have higher occurrences of children born with autism.
5. Practice self-care
Very premature babies have a much higher risk of autism. Though ASD is most commonly associated with genetics, new studies are finding birth and weight complications can factor into the equation as well. Doctors have been surprised at this finding, which revealed nearly 30% of children born extremely early are diagnosed with ASD. For babies who are born at term, the corresponding number is 1%.
In most situations, it’s impossible to prevent factors that contribute to preterm birth, but sometimes early labor, which accounts for 64% of preterm births, can be avoided with proper self-care. Pregnant women should eat healthily and avoid that old adage about eating for two.
Other ways to take care of yourself during pregnancy include:
- Taking prenatal vitamins
- Avoiding exposure to unnecessary drugs
- Following medical guidelines for gestational diabetes tests
- Exercising gently, under a physician’s care
- Sleep when tired and taking breaks throughout the day
6. Be kind to yourself
Women in the U.S. are now part of a worldview that believes you can do pregnancy right, despite how individual and unique every women’s body is and how differently each responds to pregnancy. Tune out judgmental voices in your head, especially if your own mind is generating them. Such thoughts only increase stress, which can also lead to a difficult pregnancy. Being kind to yourself helps your health and the health of your baby.
The list of things to do to decrease the risk of ASD is equally good for staying proactive during your pregnancy and safeguarding your baby’s health. It’s important to remember, though, even the most careful mother can’t control everything. The majority of the time, ASD—and other birth-related issues—are not something you can plan for or prevent.
Jennifer Landis, writer and founder of Mindfulness Mama, has been writing for the last decade and holds a BA in journalism. She is an avid goal setter and achiever.
Jennifer’s proudest accomplishments include two all-natural births, running a marathon, successfully making a croquembouche, and running two half marathons.
In addition to The Doctor Weighs In, her writing has appeared in VeryWell Family, Fortune, Scary Mommy, The Huffington Post, and Women’s Running. Tweet her your favorite health tips @JenniferELandis.