Folic acid, also known as folate or vitamin B9, is essential for the healthy growth of the fetus. It reduces the risk of neural tube defects (the neural tube will become the baby's spinal cord, skull and brain), and may also help prevent other birth defects such as a cleft palate and certain heart defects.
Dietary sources of folate
Foods naturally rich in folate include:
- Legumes (e.g., beans and lentils)
- Dark green vegetables (e.g., peas, spinach, broccoli, Brussels sprouts)
- Orange vegetables
Also, white flour, pasta and cornmeal are fortified with folic acid.
The importance of folic acid before and during pregnancy
Dietary sources on their own are usually not enough to achieve the recommended daily dose needed to reduce the risk of congenital malformation. All women who could become pregnant are advised to eat foods that are rich in folate, and to take a multivitamin containing at least 0.4 mg of folic acid daily.
If you are planning on having a baby, start taking the supplement at least 2 to 3 months before becoming pregnant. In fact, the effectiveness of folic acid in preventing birth defects is optimal when taken before conception. If you are already pregnant and not taking folic acid, start taking it as soon as possible. Folic acid supplementation should be continued until 4 to 6 weeks postpartum or as long as breastfeeding continues.
Prenatal vitamins should be taken on an empty stomach. If stomach upset occurs, take at bedtime or with a snack.
Choosing a multivitamin
Women with certain medical conditions, who are treated with certain medications, or who present any of the risk factors below may need to take a higher dose of folic acid:
- Neural tube anomaly detected in a previous pregnancy
- Neural tube defect in your or your partner's family history
- Family history of other birth defects related to folic acid deficiency
It is worth noting that high doses of certain vitamins (especially vitamin A) should not be taken. Do not take more than the amount recommended on the packaging. Speak to your healthcare provider to find out which multivitamin is right for you.