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.
About Folic Acid
Folic acid, sometimes called folate, is a B vitamin (B9) found mostly in leafy green vegetables like kale and spinach, orange juice, and enriched grains.
Many studies have shown that women who get 400 micrograms (0.4 milligrams) daily before conception and during early pregnancy reduce the risk that their baby will be born with a serious neural tube defect (a birth defect involving incomplete development of the brain and spinal cord) by up to 70%.
The most common neural tube defects are:
- spina bifida, an incomplete closure of the spinal cord and spinal column
- anencephaly, severe underdevelopment of the brain
- encephalocele, when brain tissue protrudes out to the skin from an abnormal 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 planning to become pregnant. Only 50% of pregnancies are planned, so any woman who could become pregnant should make sure she's getting enough folic acid.
Doctors and scientists still aren't completely sure why folic acid has such a profound effect on the prevention of neural tube defects, but they do know that it's crucial in the development of DNA. As a result, folic acid plays a large role in cell growth and development, as well as tissue formation.
Getting Enough Folic Acid
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that all women of childbearing age — and especially those who are planning a pregnancy — get about 400 micrograms (0.4 milligrams) of folic acid every day. Adequate folic acid intake is very important before conception and at least 3 months afterward to potentially reduce the risk of having a fetus with a neural tube defect.
So, how can you make sure you're getting enough folic acid? In 1998, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) mandated that folic acid be added to enriched grain products — so you can boost your intake by looking for breakfast cereals, breads, pastas, and rice containing 100% of the recommended daily folic acid allowance.
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.
Although prenatal vitamins shouldn't replace a well-balanced diet, taking them can give your body — and, therefore, your baby — an added boost of vitamins and minerals. Some health care providers even recommend taking a folic acid supplement in addition to your regular prenatal vitamin. Talk to your doctor about your daily folic acid intake and ask whether he or she recommends 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. He or she may recommend that you increase your daily intake of folic acid (even before getting pregnant) to lower your risk of having another occurrence.
Reviewed by: Elana Pearl Ben-Joseph, MD
Date reviewed: October 2014
|Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) The CDC (the national public health institute of the United States) promotes health and quality of life by preventing and controlling disease, injury, and disability.|
|U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) The FDA is responsible for protecting the public health by ensuring the safety, efficacy, and security of human and veterinary drugs, biological products, medical devices, our nation's food supply, cosmetics, and products that emit radiation.|
|American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) The AAP is committed to the health and well-being of infants, adolescents, and young adults. The website offers news articles and tips on health for families.|
|March of Dimes The March of Dimes seeks to prevent birth defects, infant mortality, low birthweight, and lack of prenatal care.|
|American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) This site offers information on numerous health issues. The women's health section includes readings on pregnancy, labor, delivery, postpartum care, breast health, menopause, contraception, and more.|
|Pregnancy Precautions: FAQs Questions regarding what you can and can't do during pregnancy abound. Knowing what could truly be harmful to your baby versus what's no real cause for concern is key to keeping your sanity throughout the 40 weeks.|
|Pregnancy & Newborn Center Advice and information for expectant and new parents.|
|Eating During Pregnancy To eat well during pregnancy, your extra calories should come from nutritious foods that contribute to your baby's growth and development.|
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|A Week-by-Week Pregnancy Calendar Pregnancy is an exciting time. Our week-by-week illustrated pregnancy calendar is a detailed guide to all the changes taking place in your baby - and in you!|
|What Precautions Should I Take While Trying to Conceive? Find out what the experts have to say.|
|Birth Defects Birth defects are relatively common. Some are minor and cause no problems; others cause major disabilities. Learn about the different types of birth defects, and how to help prevent them.|
|Staying Healthy During Pregnancy During your pregnancy, you'll probably get advice from everyone. But staying healthy depends on you - read about the many ways to keep you and your baby as healthy as possible.|
Note: All information is for educational purposes only. For specific medical advice, diagnoses, and treatment, consult your doctor.
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