Folate plays an important role in the development of your baby’s brain and spinal cord
Folic acid, also called folate, is a B vitamin that plays an important role in the production of red blood cells and helps your baby’s brain and spinal cord develop properly.
Without enough folic acid in your body, your baby’s neural tube may not close correctly and she could develop neural tube defects, including:
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 disabled. (Note: Actors Boris Kodjoe and Nicole Ari Parker have a daughter with spina bifida.) The good news is that getting enough folic acid may safeguard your baby from neural tube defects by at least 50 percent. If you’ve already had a baby with a neural tube defect, folic acid can reduce the risk of having another child with a neural tube defect by as much as 70 percent.
When Should I Start Taking Folic Acid?
Since birth defects occur within the first three to four weeks of pregnancy, it’s important to have folic acid already in your system during those early stages.
“By the time a period is missed, pregnancy recognized, it may be too late for folic acid to make a difference,” says Jeffrey Ecker, M.D., a Boston-based maternal fetal medicine doctor.
Because of this reason, your doctor will probably tell you to start taking a prenatal vitamin with folic acid before conception. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends folic acid every day for at least a month before you become pregnant and continue taking it daily throughout your pregnancy. However, the CDC also recommends all women of childbearing age take folic acid every day. So taking it even earlier than a month before conception is just fine.
In addition to preventing birth defects, this B vitamin also reduces pre-term delivery. One study showed women who took folic acid for at least a year before getting pregnant cut their chances of delivering early by at least 50 percent.
How Much Folic Acid Should I Take?
The recommended dose for all women of childbearing age is 400 mcg of folic acid a day. Check your multivitamin to see if it has the recommended amount. If you take folic acid supplements, skip the multivitamin. You should not take both.
Follow these guidelines for folic acid if you’re trying to conceive or are pregnant:
- Trying to conceive: 400 mcg
- First three months of pregnancy: 400 mcg
- Months four to nine of pregnancy: 600 mcg
- While breastfeeding: 500 mcg
You can also get folic acid in your diet. The best sources are:
- Enriched breads and cereals
- Orange juice