Neural Tube Defects in Children

February 24, 2023
Janelle Thomas MSN, RN
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Finding out your little one has a neural tube defect is a life-changing moment, and it’s understandable for parents to feel anxiety and have questions about the future. Care and treatment for neural tube defects have only continued to improve, and there are more options for gaining a better quality of life than ever before.

This easy-to-understand overview of neural tube defects explains the different types, causes, risk factors, treatment options, and how to care for a child with this condition. The goal is to help you feel more empowered and informed as a caregiver so you can make the best possible decisions for your family.

What Is A Neural Tube Defect?

A neural tube defect is a birth defect that affects the central nervous system, including the brain and spinal cord. This defect usually develops within the first month of pregnancy and interferes with the early formation of the brain and spine. Neural tube defects of some type occur in about 3,000 pregnancies in the United States each year.

In the earliest stages of pregnancy, the neural cells that eventually form the brain and spinal cord are called the neural tube. During development, the spine will consist of two separate halves that eventually close together around the neural tube to protect it as it grows into the brain and spinal cord.

With a neural tube defect, the spine fails to properly join together at some point along the neural tube. This can result in a range of different birth defects and developmental problems for the babies it affects.

Types of Neural Tube Defects

There are several different types of neural tube defects that are categorized by where they occur and the problems that develop. Common types of neural tube defects include:

  • Spina Bifida — Occurs when the neural tube doesn’t fully close around the spinal cord, which can result in protrusions of neural material and spinal fluid.
  • Anencephaly — Happens when the neural tube doesn’t close at the top, resulting in exposed brain tissue and scalp deformity. Babies with this type of defect are often stillborn or die soon after childbirth.
  • Encephalocele— Causes openings in the skull or nasal cavity through which brain material and/or neural membrane can protrude
  • Iniencephaly— This type causes severe spinal deformities that can result in lack of a neck or the head being bent backward. Babies with this type are typically stillborn.

Causes and Risk Factors for Neural Tube Defects

Like many birth defects, doctors and medical researchers still do not fully understand the cause of neural tube defects. In general, these issues are believed to be related to a combination of genetics, environmental contributors, and nutrition.

One of the single biggest risk factors for neural tube defects is a dangerously low level of folic acid, or folate, during early fetal development. Other potential risk factors include obesity, diabetes, and certain medications such as antiseizure drugs.

Preventing Neural Tube Defects

The CDC recommends all people capable of getting pregnant consume 400 micrograms of folic acid each day to prevent neural tube defects. Anyone actively planning to become pregnant should increase this dosage to 4,000 micrograms daily beginning one month before becoming pregnant and throughout the first three months. This is particularly important for women who have had a previous pregnancy involving a neural tube defect.

Other ways to lower the risk of a neural tube defect include:

  • Eat a healthy diet with plenty of folates, including beans, peas, citrus fruit, and leafy green vegetables
  • Maintain a healthy weight
  • Keep your obstetrician informed of any medications you are on or have previously taken if you are trying to become pregnant

Symptoms of Neural Tube Defects

Neural tube defect symptoms depend largely on the type of defect, but there are many common signs, including:

  • Paralysis
  • Urinary and bowel control issues
  • Deafness
  • Blindness
  • Developmental delays
  • Intellectual disabilities

Many babies with neural tube defects are not fully conscious and may require life support or extensive nutritional assistance.

How Doctors Diagnose Neural Tube Defects

Health care professionals usually identify and diagnose neural tube defects during pregnancy through the following measures:

  • Prenatal ultrasound to visually confirm developmental issues
  • Blood tests to identify elevated levels of certain proteins
  • Amniocentesis, which involves taking a sample of amniotic fluid from the womb

Neural tube defects can also be diagnosed after pregnancy in some cases through steps that include imaging tests such as magnetic resonance imagery (MRI).

Treatment for Neural Tube Defects

Treatment for neural tube defects will usually depend on the specific type and individual diagnosis of the child. In many cases, the treatment will involve one or more surgeries to repair defects, remove damaged tissue, and replace protruding tissue back into the body if possible. These procedures will usually be performed as early as possible, and in some cases may even be performed inside the womb.

Long-term treatment may involve placing a shunt to drain excess spinal fluid, or taking steps to treat related complications, such as bowel obstructions.

Caring for a Child with a Neural Tube Defect

Children with neural tube defects such as spina bifida will often have extensive care needs. This can include regular doctor visits to monitor the condition, physical rehabilitation, emotional and intellectual developmental support, and specialized nutrition.

Depending on the type and severity of your child’s neural tube defect, it can be overwhelming meeting these care needs while balancing the needs of your family. Fortunately, there is help available.

Pediatric home health services provide a caring professional to help meet your child’s needs. Home health services can help your child with exercises and physical activities, nutritional assistance, medication, and other general health needs right in your own home.

Contact Care Options for Kids for Home Health Care

It can be hard to balance your time between work, home, and caring for a child. That’s why our team of professionals at Care Options for Kids is here to help. We have been enforcing precautionary measures and following the Centers For Disease Control (CDC) guidelines for COVID-19 to ensure the safety and health of our clients and employees.

Our home health care services offer one-on-one care in the comfort of your home. We refer loving and competent nurses to provide customized care for families — from a few hours a day to around-the-clock supervision. Contact us directly to speak with a home health care professional or request a free in-home assessment. Together we can determine the best plan of action to keep your loved ones happy and healthy.

If you or a loved one are considering Pediatric Home Health Care Services, contact the caring staff at Care Options for Kids. Call today at (888) 592-5855.