When my wife and I were expecting our first child, we didn't have a sense of the problems that could arise. We were, however, both in our mid-30s, and after genetic screening and hours of counseling, we realized that there is a lot (too much?) of information to think about.

For expecting parents, this information can be a valuable tool to protect the health of their unborn child. January is National Birth Defects Prevention Month and is a good place to start.

Birth defects are physiological conditions that occur in your baby before or at the time of birth. Their severity can span a wide spectrum, from mild (mild deformity) to severe (organ failure). According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), every year 1 in 33 babies is born with a defect, leading to 1 in 5 infant deaths. In many instances, there is no family history, and the root causes of most birth defects are unknown.

The good news, however, is that treatment options can help affected babies to live longer healthier lives. Furthermore, there are steps that expecting parents can take to help reduce the risk of birth defects, many of which involve simple and straightforward lifestyle choices.

1. Avoid drinking alcohol.

Nobody knows what a safe quantity of alcohol is. Fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD) can lead to physical and mental problems in your baby that can last a lifetime. FASD is 100% preventable by simply avoiding alcohol.

2. Don't smoke or do drugs.

A no-brainer in this day and age, and a health hazard to both mother and unborn child. Even with prescription medication, check with your doctor.

3. Take folic acid.

The CDC recommends 400 micrograms folic acid every day, especially in the first month of pregnancy. Folic acid helps in the early development of the baby's brain and spine.

4. Wash your hand regularly.

Unborn babies can be exposed to infectious agents that affect the mother. Washing hands will help protect both mother and her unborn baby, especially after handling pets, raw meat or eggs, or visiting the bathroom.

5. Eat a healthy diet.

Good nutrition for a mother means good nutrition for her baby, providing the necessary vitamins, minerals, and protein that they both require.

6. Be active and exercise.

Simple exercises can strengthen back and abdominal muscles and help during labor and delivery. Healthy moms increase the likelihood of healthy babies.

7. See your doctor regularly.

Proper medical attention before and during pregnancy ensures an expecting mother's good health and can often detect any problems with the fetus.

8. Drink plenty of fluids.

Some health experts recommend 6-8 glasses of water or juice a day. Adequate hydration helps a woman's body to sustain the increase in blood volume.

9. Get plenty of rest.

Sleep is important for a person's physical and mental health. Poor sleep can adversely affect labor and delivery.

10. Avoid excess stress or emotional turmoil.

Stress triggers the release of stress hormone cortisol, which some studies link to birth defects, especially in the first trimester.

If you are expecting a child and have questions or concerns, speak with your doctor. For more information, visit the website for the National Birth Defects Prevention Network.