When becoming pregnant, your no. 1 priority is to protect your baby to ensure a safe birth and delivery and a healthy baby. However, keeping your baby healthy means keeping yourself healthy, too. One of the most important things you can do to prevent serious birth defects in your baby is to get enough folic acid in your daily diet – especially before conception and during early pregnancy.
What is Folic Acid?
Folic acid, also called folate, is a B vitamin (B9) that helps the body produce healthy new cells. Folic acid is a manmade form of folate found in fortified foods and vitamins, whereas folate is found naturally in some foods.
Why Women Need Folic Acid
Folic acid is important for everyone, but it is especially important for women who are of the age to conceive. Folic acid is known to decrease risk of birth defects of the brain and spine (spina bifida, anencephaly and encephalocele) that can form during pregnancy. All women who are able to bear children need folic acid because:
- Getting enough folic acid is important before conception because most birth defects of the brain and spine develop in the first 28 days of pregnancy – oftentimes before a woman knows she is pregnant.
- Statistics show that over 50 percent of pregnancies are unplanned. So getting enough folic acid is equally important for women who are not planning to become pregnant as those who are planning to become pregnant.
- By the time a woman finds out she is pregnant (whether or not it was planned), it could be too late to prevent these birth defects if she has not been getting the daily recommended amount of folic acid.
Recommended Amounts of Folic Acid
Talk to your doctor about the recommended amount of folic acid for your unique medical history and familial goals. For most women of childbearing age (even if you are not planning to become pregnant), it is recommended that you take folic acid each day, particularly if:
- You are pregnant or plan to become pregnant. The CDC recommends women take 400 mcg of folic acid every day, starting at least a month before getting pregnant and during all stages of pregnancy.
- You are breastfeeding. Some doctors recommend breastfeeding women continue taking prenatal vitamins to ensure they are getting enough folic acid.
- You had a baby with a birth defect and plan to become pregnant again. The CDC reports women who had a child with a neural tube defect can reduce the risk of having another child with a neural tube defect by as much as 70 percent if they get enough folic acid each day.
- You have a personal or family history of spina bifida and want to get pregnant. A doctor may recommend up to 4,000 mcg of folic acid for women with a personal or family history of the birth defect.
Folic Acid Sources
Though folic acid can be found naturally in some foods, it can be hard to maintain a diet that meets your daily folic acid needs. In addition to eating folic acid-rich foods, a doctor may also recommend taking a daily supplement or multi-vitamin which contains folic acid.
Folic Acid Foods
Check the labels of food and drink products to see if it has folic acid (the label may say “folate” instead of folic acid). The label will indicate how much folic acid is in each serving.
Keep these tips in mind as you look for folic acid food sources:
- Folate can be found naturally in leafy green vegetables, like kale and spinach, as well as citrus fruits/juices and beans.
- Folic acid is added to some foods that are labeled “enriched,” including breakfast foods (some contain the total amount of folic acid a women needs each day), breads, flours, pastas, cornmeal and white rice.
- You can’t eat too much folic acid from natural food sources, but unless your doctor tells you to, don’t consume more than 1,000 mcg a day from supplements or enriched foods.
Folic Acid Vitamins
Check your vitamin’s label to ensure it has at least 400 mcg folic acid and talk to your doctor about your recommended amount. Keep these tips in mind as you choose a folic acid vitamin:
- Most stores offer a single folic acid supplement or a daily multivitamin containing the daily-recommended amount.
- For those who can’t swallow large pills, multivitamins containing folic acid also come in chewable chocolate or fruit flavors, liquids and large oval or smaller round pills.
Whether you are planning to become pregnant in the near future or sometime down the road, getting sufficient folic acid each day is an important part of keeping you and your future family healthy. If and when the time comes to start planning for a family, use our Find a Provider tool to locate an OB or Midwife in your area for comprehensive prenatal care from pregnancy to delivery.