Having a healthy baby means making sure you're healthy too. One of the most important things you can do to help prevent serious birth defects in your baby is to get enough folic acid every day — especially before conception and during early pregnancy.
What Is Folic Acid?
Folic acid (or folate) is a B vitamin (B9) found mostly in dark green vegetables like broccoli and spinach, legumes such as beans and peas, and enriched grains.
What Are the Benefits of Folic Acid?
Women who are pregnant or trying to become pregnant should get at least 400 micrograms (0.4 milligrams) of folic acid daily before conception and for at least 3 months afterward. Studies show that this greatly reduces a baby's risk of serious neural tube defects.
What Are Neural Tube Defects?
Neural tube defects are birth defects that involve incomplete development of the brain and spinal cord. The most common neural tube defects are:
spina bifida: when the spinal cord and spinal column don't completely close
anencephaly: a severe underdevelopment of the brain
encephalocele: when brain tissue protrudes out to the skin through an opening in the skull
All of these defects happen during the first 28 days of pregnancy — usually before a woman even knows she's pregnant.
That's why it's so important for all women of childbearing age to get enough folic acid — not just those who are trying to become pregnant. Half of all pregnancies are not planned, so any woman who could become pregnant should make sure she gets enough folic acid.
It's not clear why folic acid has such a profound effect on the prevention of neural tube defects. But experts do know that it's vital to the development of DNA. As a result, folic acid plays a large role in cell growth and development, as well as tissue formation.
How Can I Get Enough Folic Acid?
How can women of childbearing age — and especially those who are planning a pregnancy — get enough folic acid every day?
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) requires food-makers to add folic acid to their enriched grain products. So you can boost your intake by eating breakfast cereals, breads, pastas, and rice that have 100% of the recommended daily folic acid allowance. Check the product's label for this information.
But for most women, eating fortified foods isn't enough. To reach the recommended daily level, you'll probably need a vitamin supplement. During pregnancy, you need more of all of the essential nutrients than you did before you became pregnant.
Prenatal vitamins shouldn't replace a well-balanced diet. But taking them can give your body — and your baby — an added boost of vitamins and minerals. Some health care providers recommend taking a folic acid supplement in addition to a prenatal vitamin. Talk to your doctor about your daily folic acid intake. He or she might recommend a prescription supplement, an over-the-counter brand, or both.
Also talk to your doctor if you've already had a pregnancy that was affected by a neural tube defect or if you or your partner were affected by one yourselves. The doctor may recommend that you take a higher dose of folic acid (even before getting pregnant).