Folic Acid and Your Unborn Baby

smiley baby - folic acidGuest Blogger: Ellen Delpapa, MD, Chief, Division of Maternal-Fetal Medicine, UMass Memorial Medical Center

Planning to become pregnant in 2016? If you answered yes, then it’s time to talk about folic acid and the many positive effects it can have on you and your unborn child. If you’re considering having a baby, now, is the perfect time to share what we know so you can prepare for a healthy baby, even before you’re expecting!

It’s important for women to make sure they are getting enough folic acid throughout their pregnancy, but women who are currently pregnant are not the only women who should be taking it. Rather, every woman who is able to get pregnant ought to take a daily dose. It’s highly beneficial to have folate built up in the system because birth defects develop in a baby within the mother’s first three to four weeks of pregnancy. Studies have shown that women who started taking folic acid (the manmade version of vitamin B known as folate), at least a year before becoming pregnant, cut their likelihood of having a baby with a birth defect in half.

What Birth Defects Are We Talking About?

The most common birth defects in newborns that can be reduced by folate taken before pregnancy are known by the umbrella term neural tube defects because they are brought on from a baby’s neural tube failing to close in the right way. One neural tube defect is called spina bifida – this is when the bones of the spinal column do not develop fully and, in turn, several nerves in the body are not able to perform their jobs properly. This leads to permanent disabilities for a child and the need for a number of future surgeries. A second, and more severe, neural tube defect in a baby is called anencephaly. This is when major portions of the brain don’t develop leaving the baby unable to survive gestation or dying shortly after birth. However, the good news is that when the mother has taken enough folic acid, her baby’s chance of developing a neural tube defect is cut by 50 percent.

In addition to reducing the risk of neural tube defects, folic acid also plays an important role in preventing low birth weight, premature birth, and cleft lip and palates in babies. And moms benefit directly from folic acid, too, through a reduced risk of stroke, heart disease, Alzheimer’s disease and even some forms of cancer.

How Much Is Enough?

Typically, women should take at least 400 to 800 micrograms (mcg) (0.4-0.8 milligrams) of folate every day before and during pregnancy. Women who are breastfeeding should take at least 500 mcg a day, and 4,000 mcg should be consumed every day by women who have previously had a child with a neural tube defect or who have family members with a history of spina bifida. Talk with your doctor to find out what the right daily dose of folic acid is for you, as he/she may prescribe a very specific amount to based on your individual medical history and any medications you are already taking.

Where Can We Find It?

Several vitamins contain the full recommended daily dosage of folic acid. Just check the label on the container. If it’s listed as having 400 to 800 mcg or 100 percent daily value of folic acid then it’s a good daily vitamin to take.

What you may not know is that a handful of foods we eat contain folic acid, as well. Some of these foods are:

  • Cereal
  • Citrus fruits/juices
  • Lentils
  • Dried peas or beans (e.g., great northern beans)
  • Dark green vegetables (e.g., spinach, asparagus, okra, broccoli)
  • Grain products (e.g., breads, pastas, white rice)

An important note is that the combination of a manmade and natural folic acid is the best formula for anybody. The manmade form is found in vitamin pills, and the natural form is found in foods. The body has different ways of using each. Because of this, making sure you get a little bit of both is the best path to take.

Review What You Have Learned

Think you now know everything there is to know about folic acid? Take this quiz from the CDC to test your knowledge and find out what steps you can take next. Then, click here to find a variety of downloadable resources so you can share what you know with your fellow moms-to-be.

Join the conversation. Use the comment section below to post any advice or personal stories you may have in regard to folic acid and its power to fight birth defects.

  2 comments for “Folic Acid and Your Unborn Baby

  1. Anonymous
    February 5, 2016 at 12:37 pm

    Do most prenatal vitamins have folate in them? Is that enough?

  2. Anonymous
    February 1, 2016 at 4:54 pm

    my granddaughter is expecting twins in June.. bless her heart. she has a son who is just 16 months old now..

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