Spina Bifida in Babies – Symptoms, Diagnosis And Treatment

5 min read

Written by Aparna Hari

Aparna Hari

Her experience in impactful writing combined with her background in Home Sciences makes Aparna the perfect candidate for content writing in the pregnancy and parenting niche.

Spina Bifida in Babies

Your baby goes through a lot of changes in the womb. It develops from an embryo to a fetus and then finally comes out as a fully developed miniature version of you. But any miscalculation in this shaping process of the baby can cause birth defects. Spina Bifida in babies is one such birth defect that causes due to the malformation of the spinal cord. It is a common birth defect and almost 1500 babies are born each year in the USA with this defect.

You can cure Spina bifida easily if you can detect it early. And if not treated well then it will cause a life-long hurdle for the baby. Spina Bifida can cause neurological problems, lower body paralysis and even sexual dysfunction. So, to be aware of it you should not skip your routine tests and ultrasounds. Here is all you should know about Spina Bifida, its causes and cures.

In This Article

What is Spina Bifida in Babies?

Spina Bifida is a type of neural tube defect or NTD in which a part of the spinal column does not form properly. This causes some portions of the spinal cord and nerves to be exposed through the outer skin of the baby. A neural tube is a structure that forms during early pregnancy and closes by around the 28th day of conception. This structure eventually becomes the brain, the spinal cord. Spina Bifida is a condition where the spinal cord doesn’t form properly due to defects in the neural tube.

This condition can emerge anywhere on the spine. Sometimes it emerges as an open space in the back of the baby. And sometimes it can have a fluid-filled sack on the back of the baby from where you can see the spinal cord inside.

Causes of Spina Bifida in Babies

Spina Bifida is mostly a genetic defect. If the mother already has a child with Spina Bifida then there are 4% more chances that the next baby will have the same defect. But sometimes the deficiency of folic acid or vitamin B-9 can also cause spina bifida in babies who have no such genetic factors involved.

Other factors that can enhance the chances of Spina Bifida are

  • Uncontrolled diabetes of the mother
  • Obesity
  • Some types of medication

Symptoms of Spina Bifida in Infants

Symptoms of Spina Bifida in Infants

The symptoms of Spina Bifida vary according to its location on the spine. The higher its location is the more severe the condition will be. The symptoms of Spina Bifida are:

  • A small opening in the spinal region on the back
  • A gap in between the joining of vertebrae
  • Open and visible spinal canal at the middle or low end of the back
  • The emergence of a fluid-filled skin sack with or without the spinal cord and nerves within
  • Seizures
  • Curved spine
  • Weak, undeveloped or paralyzed leg muscles
  • Deformed feet
  • Uneven hips
  • Dysfunction in bowel and bladder
  • Tiny birthmark or a dimple or a cluster of hair or a thick fat area on the back in the case of Spina Bifada Occulta

Types of Spina Bifida

Types of Spina Bifida

There are three types of Spina Bifida depending on the severity of it. They are termed Myelomeningocele, Meningocele, and Spina Bifida Occulta.

1. Myelomeningocele

It is the most severe case of Spina Bifida. In this, a sack appears anywhere on the baby’s back from the empty section of the spine. Here the fluid-filled sack contains the spinal cord and nerves. Due to continuous contact with the amniotic fluid, the spinal cord and nerves get damaged. As a result, Myelomeningocele causes severe physical dysfunctions like lower-body paralysis, incontinence, etc.

2. Meningocele

In this type also a sack emerges at the back of the baby’s spine but here the sack does not contain the spinal cord and nerves. As a result, the spinal cord does not have any damage and the disabilities remain minimal.

3. Spina Bifida Occulta

It is called hidden spina bifida as there no outward signs to recognize it. There will be no open area on the baby’s back, just a gap in the spine unrecognizable without an x-ray. It is not so dangerous and does not cause any physical disability as the spinal cord and nerves remain intact. Sometimes it remains unnoticed until later in life.

[Read : What Causes Anencephaly During Pregnancy?]

Diagnosis of Spina Bifida in Babies

Both the Myelomeningocele and Meningocele types of Spina Bifida can be diagnosed during pregnancy. But the Spina Bifida Occulta may sometimes remain unnoticed until adulthood or not be diagnosed at all.

During pregnancy, some prenatal tests and ultrasounds can recognize if there is any spina bifida or other birth defects.

These tests are

1. AFP

In this blood test, the mother’s blood will be taken to measure the amount of alpha-fetoprotein or AFP in it. This protein is released by the unborn baby but an increase in AFP suggests Spina Bifida.

2. Ultrasound

The sack of open space in the spine can be diagnosed through the routine USG.

3. Amniocentesis

In Amniocentesis test, the doctor will take a sample of the amniotic fluid to measure the AFP in it. It is more reliable than the AFP blood test.

4. Physical Examination of The Baby

Spina Bifida Occulta is diagnosed by a hairy patch, dimple or a small birthmark on the back. Then the doctor will take an x-ray, CT scan or MRI to confirm it.

Treatment For Spina Bifida in Infants

Treatment For Spina Bifida in Infants

Different types of Spina Bifida require different treatments. As the Myelomeningocele and the Meningocele types are most severe they require surgery to remove the sack and place the spinal cord and nerves back in their place. There may be a shunt put in the place of open vertebrae to avoid further complications. In some cases, prenatal surgery can be possible, but it is a bit risky. In severe cases even after the surgery paralysis and problems with the bowel and bladder functions will remain for life.

Prognosis of Babies With Spina Bifida

According to the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, about 14% of the infants with Myelomeningocele die before 5 years. It causes due to hindbrain herniation complications which cause an accumulation of cerebrospinal fluid in the brain. About 85% of cases require shunts during surgery and in 45% of cases, these shunts create complications within 1 year of surgery.

So, Spina Bifida is a serious birth defect and most of the time cannot be prevented as it starts at a very early stage of pregnancy. So as a preventive measure, you can take green leafy vegetables to ensure enough intake of vitamin B-9 or folic acid. Keep your diabetes in check and reduce overweight before conception. This will lessen the chances of Spina Bifida.

[Read : Folic Acid- The Friend From Day One]


1. When Can an Ultrasound Detect Spina Bifida?

The Myelomeningocele Spina Bifida can be detected in a second-trimester routine USG between 16 to 18 weeks of pregnancy.

2. What Are The Follow-up Treatments After Spina Bifida Surgery?

Depending on the position of the Spina Bifida and the disability it is causing, different follow-up treatments are done post-surgery. These can be bowel management, physical therapy, lower extremity bracing etc.

3. Does Having Folic Acid in First Trimester of Pregnancy Prevent Spina Bifida ?

According to NHS, taking folic acid-rich food and supplements can prevent up to 7 out of 10 neural tube defects like Spina Bifida.

Read Also: Congenital Ptosis in Babies – Causes, Symptoms, and Treatment

Aparna Hari,MBA in Marketing,P.G. Diploma in Human Resource Management from IGNOU Bachelor of Sciences (Home Science) from Nagarjuna University

Her experience in impactful writing combined with her background in Home Sciences makes Aparna the perfect candidate for content writing in the pregnancy and parenting niche.Read more.

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