PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — New research highlights the benefits of fetal surgery for babies with spina bifida. A groundbreaking surgery has already helped many children including one girl who had the procedure done at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.

Seven-year-old Mia Rodriguez has spina bifida, but surgery before she was born, has allowed her to have a more normal life.

New research shows fetal surgery continues to have benefits as children grow.

“Mia is an incredibly happy little girl. She is able to be a typical child. She does gymnastics,” Mia’s mother Stephanie Rodriguez said.

Spina bifida is a birth defect where part of the spinal column doesn’t form properly, leaving a section exposed through the back.

Doctors at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia developed a surgery to repair the opening that is performed on the fetus before birth.

“They let us know they would be doing an incision across my belly like a C-section,” Rodriguez said.

After fetal surgery, the pregnancy continues allowing the baby’s spine to heal and reducing the risk of complications associated with spina bifida.

“It’s just mind-blowing that it’s possible, it’s mind-blowing,” Mia’s mom added.

The research compares outcomes between children who had fetal surgery and those who were operated on after birth.

“The findings are striking in virtually every category. The children treated before birth has done better than children treated after birth,” CHOP’s Chief Surgeon Dr. Scott Adzick said.

Dr. Adzick says the research followed the two groups for up to 10 years and showed that fetal surgery had several benefits including improved motor and cognitive function.

“What can be better than see a child who you treated before birth who is leading a normal, nearly normal, life,” Dr. Adzick said.

Children and their families come to CHOP and Dr. Adzick from all over the world as the team is a world leader in the prenatal surgery.

Mia’s parents say she still has challenges but is doing better than they ever expected and she just started first grade.

Stephanie Stahl