Folic acid is a B vitamin that helps to prevent brain and spinal cord defects in a developing baby when included in your diet before you become pregnant and during the first three months of pregnancy. You can get the recommended daily allowance of folic acid in most multivitamins or as a folic acid supplement. Foods rich in folate, the natural form of folic acid, also provide your baby protection.
Your baby’s brain and spinal cord originate from the neural tube. When the neural tube does not close properly, it results in a serious birth defect called neural tube defect. Spina bifida and anencephaly are the two most common neural tube defects and can be fatal. In the United States, neural tube defects are most common in Hispanic women. According to the March of Dimes, neural tube defects affect nearly 3,000 pregnancies in the United States each year. Up to 70 percent of these cases could be eliminated if all women of childbearing age got enough folic acid.
Because not all pregnancies are planned, it’s important for all women of childbearing age to take a daily multivitamin that includes 0.4mg (400 micrograms) of folic acid. If you’ve previously had one child with a neural tube defect and are trying to get pregnant again, talk to your health care provider about prescribing a folic acid supplement. According to the Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, the recommended dosage for these mothers is 10 times the normal amount. However, you should not take extra multivitamins to get the correct dosage of folic acid since large amounts of some vitamins are toxic.
Once you become pregnant, your health care provider may recommend increasing your daily dosage of folic acid to 0.6 mg, or 600 micrograms. Your prenatal vitamin should contain the recommended dosage, but it’s important to double-check. Some women with pre-existing medical conditions, such as sickle cell disease, may need to take a larger dosage.
When trying to get pregnant, it’s important to eat as healthy as possible to get enough folic acid. In addition to taking a daily dose of folic acid in a multivitamin, be sure to pack your diet with folate-rich foods. Snack on a navel orange or banana, or top your Romaine lettuce salad with cooked garbanzo beans. Enjoy a hearty lentil soup, or serve up a side of cooked broccoli and a dish of beef liver. Many foods are fortified with folic acid including orange juice, cereal and bread. All of these foods provide protection against neural tube defects.
Folic acid doesn’t only protect developing babies against neural tube defects. Women of childbearing age who regularly take a multivitamin with 0.4 mg (400 micrograms) of folic acid reduce the risk of their babies being born with a cleft lip. Folic acid also protects against high blood pressure, premature birth, low birth weight and miscarriage.