Folic acid is a pregnancy superhero! Taking a prenatal vitamin with the recommended 400 micrograms (mcg) of folic acid before and during pregnancy can help prevent birth defects of your baby's brain and spinal cord. Take it every day and go ahead and have a bowl of fortified cereal, too.
What Is Folic Acid?
Folic acid is a man-made form of a B vitamin called folate. Folate plays an important role in the production of red blood cells and helps your baby's neural tube develop into their brain and spinal cord. The best food sources of folic acid are fortified cereals. Folate is found naturally in dark green vegetables and citrus fruits.
When Should I Start Taking Folic Acid?
Birth defects occur within the first 3-4 weeks of pregnancy. So it's important to have folate in your system during those early stages when your baby's brain and spinal cord are developing.
If you talked to your doctor when you were trying to conceive, they probably told you to start taking a prenatal vitamin with folic acid. One study showed that women who took folic acid for at least a year before getting pregnant cut their chances of delivering early by 50% or more.
The CDC recommends that you start taking folic acid every day for at least a month before you become pregnant, and every day while you are pregnant. However, the CDC also recommends that all women of childbearing age take folic acid every day. So you'd be fine to start taking it even earlier.
If you picked out your own prenatal vitamin, take it to your OB once you're pregnant to make sure it has the recommended amounts of everything you need, including folic acid. All prenatal vitamins are not the same and some may have less or more of the vitamins and minerals you need.
How Much Folic Acid Should I Take?
The recommended dose for all women of childbearing age is 400 mcg of folate each day. If you take a multivitamin every day, check to see if it has the recommended amount. If for some reason you don't want to take a multivitamin, you can take folic acid supplements.
Here's how much folic acid is recommended each day in terms of pregnancy:
- While you're trying to conceive: 400 mcg
- For the first three months of pregnancy: 400 mcg
- For months four to nine of pregnancy: 600 mcg
- While breastfeeding: 500 mcg
What Are the Benefits of Folic Acid?
Without enough folic acid in your body, your baby's neural tube may not close correctly and they could develop health problems called neural tube defects. These include:
- Spina bifida: incomplete development of the spinal cord or the vertebrae
- Anencephaly: incomplete development of major parts of the brain
Babies with anencephaly usually do not live long, and those with spina bifida may be permanently disabled. These are scary problems, to say the least. But the good news is that getting enough folic acid may protect your baby from neural tube defects by at least 50%. According to the CDC, if you've already had a baby with a neural tube defect, getting enough folic acid may reduce your risk of having another child with a neural tube defect by as much as 70%. If you have had a previous child with a neural tube defect, tit is recommended that you increase your daily amount of folic acid to 4000 mcg (same as 4 mg) each day. Check with your doctor about how much you should take.
When taken before and during pregnancy, folic acid may also protect your baby against:
- Cleft lip and palate
- Premature birth
- Low birth weight
- Poor growth in the womb
Folic acid has also been suggested to reduce your risk of:
- Pregnancy complications (One report found that women who took folic acid supplements during the second trimester had a reduced risk of preeclampsia.)
- Heart disease
- Some types of cancers
- Alzheimer’s disease
Good Food Sources of Folic Acid
Foods that can help you get more folic acid in your diet include:
- 400 mcg: Breakfast cereals fortified with 100% of the DV, 3/4 cup
- 215 mcg: Beef liver, cooked, braised, 3 oz
- 179 mcg: Lentils, mature seeds, cooked, boiled, 1/2 cup
- 115 mcg: Spinach, frozen, cooked, boiled, 1/2 cup
- 110 mcg: Egg noodles, enriched, cooked, 1/2 cup
- 100 mcg: Breakfast cereals, fortified with 25% of the DV, 3/4 cup
- 90 mcg: Great Northern beans, boiled, 1/2 cup