Vitamin D Deficiency Increases Risk of Birth Defects and High Blood Pressure

The importance of nutrition and taking prenatal vitamins during pregnancy is well known.  Science is, however, only beginning to understand the role of vitamin D in decreasing the risk of birth defects.  Recent studies show that adequate levels of vitamin D at birth can help prevent the incidence of both birth defects and high blood pressure among infants.

Taking an adequate amount of vitamin D during pregnancy may be an effective way to reduce instances of underweight babies, infant mortality, miscarriages and birth defects.  A report from Reuters highlights a study that showed women who took vitamin D during pregnancy were 28 percent less likely to lose their babies to miscarriage or to have underweight newborns.

Vitamin D Deficiency, Birth Defects and High Blood Pressure

The body uses vitamin D to absorb calcium into the bones.  Sunlight exposure triggers the body to organically produce vitamin D.  It is also found in some foods such as eggs, salmon and fortified milk.  Most people, including children, do have a vitamin D deficiency and would benefit from dietary supplements.

Nutritionists and scientists have known for decades that vitamin D supplementation is essential for the prevention of rickets, a bone disease that can cause an increase in bone fractures.  The connection between vitamin D deficiency, birth defects, and neonatal high blood pressure, however, is a newly discovered concept.

Vitamin D and Birth Defects

It is not uncommon for pregnant women to have a vitamin D deficiency.  Apart from the benefits suggested by the before-mentioned study, vitamin D is known to contribute to many important areas of fetal development including:

  • Muscle function
  • Healthy fat accumulation
  • Bone growth
  • Heart function
  • Neurodevelopment
  • Immune responses

A vitamin D deficiency creates the risk of birth defects involving any one of these body systems.  For birth defects, making sure mothers do not have a deficiency is important, but vitamin D supplementation will not necessarily improve the chances of a baby born without birth defects.

Vitamin D and High Blood Pressure

High blood pressure is a worldwide health crisis.  It is a leading cause of preventable heart disease worldwide.  Disturbingly, rates of high blood pressure among children in the U.S. are on the rise.

High blood pressure in infancy or childhood is a reliable indicator of high blood pressure in adulthood.  This is because infants and young children with high blood pressure will likely struggle with it throughout their lives.

Research that followed low-income children in Boston from birth to age 18 found that the children who were born with low levels of vitamin D had a 60 percent higher risk of elevated systolic blood pressure.  As the children in the study aged, those with a vitamin D deficiency were twice as likely to have high systolic blood pressure between the ages of three and 18.

Systolic blood pressure is the top number in a blood pressure reading (ex: 110/74).  Systolic blood pressure measures the force of the blood against the arteries when the heart beats.  The lower number, diastolic pressure, measures the force in between heartbeats.  High systolic pressure increases the risk of heart disease even if diastolic pressure is within normal levels.

Further research is planned to identify if there is a strong correlation between vitamin D deficiency and high blood pressure (hypertension). There is, however, clear research that shows that vitamin D is a critical nutrient for overall good health.

Are Prenatal Vitamins Enough to Offset Vitamin D Deficiency?

Pregnant women who take great care with their nutrition take prenatal vitamins.  But not all vitamins and supplements are created alike.  Some supplements on the market may not provide the appropriate dose of vitamin D to provide benefits to expectant mothers.  That means even if you take a prenatal vitamin with vitamin D, you can still be deficient.

Supplementing prenatal vitamins with vitamin D in doses of 2,000 International Units (IU) or less each day has a dramatic effect in 12-16 weeks.  Research shows it can reduce pregnancy loss, increase birth weight and decrease the risk of high blood pressure.  This further results in:

  • 55 percent lower chance of an underweight newborn
  • 65 percent lower chance of pregnancy loss or infant death
  • Significantly lower risk of infant high blood pressure

On the other hand, too much vitamin D is not necessarily better.  The same results do not occur when mothers take more than 2,000 IU per day.  Vitamin D during pregnancy is reportedly safe.  At least, it does not increase the risk of fetal or newborn mortality, birth defects or critical illness at birth.

Absent Screening for Vitamin D Levels During Pregnancy

Since vitamin D can offer such powerful benefits for expectant mothers and newborns, it is jarring to note there is currently no standard in place for screening pregnant women and young children for deficiency.  The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) suggests screening for SIDS risk, autism and growth and development among a host of other indicators of healthy moms and children.  The APP does not, however, recommend that doctors test for vitamin D deficiency.  Researchers suggest that vitamin D levels are so important that it may be time to add monitoring to regular well-child visits.

Tips for Getting Enough Vitamin D during Pregnancy and Early Childhood

Getting outside in sunlight is the best way to make sure that expectant moms and young kids do not have a dangerous vitamin D deficiency.  To maintain appropriate vitamin D blood levels, 10-30 minutes of midday sun several times per week is optimal.  Of course, recommendations for sun exposure depend on your skin pigmentation and sensitivity. 

Exposure to sunlight is not always possible or desirable, however, so try to get enough vitamin D by:

  • Using vitamin D drops or supplements for breastfed babies.  Formula is fortified with vitamin D, so breastfed babies are more likely to have a vitamin D deficiency, especially if they do not get enough sunlight.
  • Opt for fatty fish and seafood like salmon, tuna, oysters and shrimp.
  • Eat mushrooms.  Mushrooms are the only entirely plant-based source of vitamin D.
  • Choose eggs from pasture-raised or free-range chickens and eat the yolks.
  • Try a UV light lamp.
  • Choose vitamin D fortified foods over the alternative.
  • Eat vitamin D rich foods, such as beef liver, cheese, orange juice, cereal, red meat and soy milk.

Have Questions about Birth Defects or Birth Injuries?

Expectant mothers rely on their healthcare providers to give them the facts about their health.  If you are deficient in a certain vitamin or nutrient, you hope that your doctor will inform you.  When you don’t have all the facts about your health, you can’t make the best decisions.

If your baby has a birth defect or has suffered a birth injury due to obstetrical malpractice, call Birth Injury Guide.  If your doctor was negligent and did not inform you about a deficiency or other health concern that caused a birth defect or birth injury, you may have grounds to take legal action.

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Maia Watkins

Page Medically Reviewed By Maia McSwiggan, MS, OTR/L

Maia McSwiggan, MS, OTR/L, is an occupational therapist with experience in the clinical and hospital settings. Maia has extensive experience working with children. She is a regular medical reviewer for Birth Injury Guide.

Meagan Cline

Written By Meagan Cline

Meagan Cline is a professional legal researcher and writer. She lends her expertise to the team at Birth Injury Guide to provide up-to-date and relevant content that clients can count on.