Folic acid and a healthy pregnancy

October is Spina Bifida Awareness Month

 

Having a healthy baby means making sure you’re healthy, too. One of the most important things a woman can do to prevent serious birth defects is to get enough folic acid. It’s important to take folic acid before you get pregnant and during early pregnancy. Studies show women who get at least 400 micrograms (mcg) of folic acid before and during pregnancy reduce the risk of having a baby with neural tube defects (serious birth defects involving the incomplete development of the brain and spinal cord) by up to 70 percent. These defects happen during the first 28 days of pregnancy, usually before a woman even knows she’s pregnant. Only half of all pregnancies are planned – so any woman who could become pregnant should make sure she is taking enough folic acid every day.

What is folic acid? How much do you need?

Folic acid is a water soluble B vitamin found in green vegetables like spinach and asparagus as well as in orange juice and enriched cereals and breads. Water soluble means it does not stay in your body for very long, so it needs to be taken every day. For most women, eating the right foods isn’t enough. To get the recommended level, you probably need to take a vitamin.

During pregnancy you require more of all the vitamins and nutrients than you did before you became pregnant. Most nonprescription prenatal vitamins contain 500 to 800 mcg of folic acid. A prenatal vitamin shouldn’t replace eating a healthy, well-balanced diet, but it does ensure you’re getting the recommended amount of folic acid every day.

If you’ve already had a pregnancy that was affected by a neural tube defect, make sure you talk about it with your health care provider. You may need to increase your daily intake of folic acid before getting pregnant again to lower your risk of having another baby with the same defect.

Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin has a long history of caring for children with neural tube defects. There are programs available for your child with Spina Bifida and other special needs. For more information on these programs, visit chw.org.

Deb Walbergh, RN, BSN, is a graduate student in Nursing in the Spina Bifida Clinic at Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin.