Why Folic Acid Is Important during Pregnancy

pregnant woman with a handful of vitamins

Folic acid is one of the B vitamins. It plays an essential role in the development of a baby's brain and spinal cord during your pregnancy. If you're planning to have a baby, doctors recommend that you begin taking folic acid when you're trying to get pregnant. It can prepare your body for a healthy pregnancy and help prevent a number of birth defects and other serious problems.

Amounts of Folic Acid

It's recommended that you take a prenatal vitamin or supplement that contains 400 mcg of folic acid. That's the recommended dosage for pre-pregnancy and through the first trimester. During the second and third trimesters, the daily dose should be increased to 600 mcg. And, after the baby is born, you still might not be off the hook; if you're breastfeeding, you should be taking 500 mcg of folic acid per day.

Most prenatal or pregnancy vitamins that you find on the shelf will have enough folic acid in them but read the labels carefully. If you use a multivitamin instead of a prenatal, you'll definitely want to check the amounts (many of them fall short of the daily recommended dose).

Prevention of Birth Defects

There are two main birth defects that folic acid helps to prevent: Spina bifida and anencephaly. Spina bifida is a condition in which the spinal cord doesn't fully develop; it results in permanent disability. Anencephaly is a condition in which the brain doesn't fully develop, and it is usually fatal for the baby. Taking a sufficient amount of folic acid can reduce the risk of these birth defects by up to 50 percent.

gummy vitamins

Additional Benefits for Baby

Getting your daily dose of folic acid might also help to prevent the following problems:

  • Premature birth or miscarriage

  • Low birth weight

  • Pregnancy complications such as preeclampsia

  • Cleft lip and cleft palate

Additional Benefits for Mom

Folic acid has been shown to reduce the risk of heart disease and stroke in women. Doctors believe that it can reduce the risk of certain types of cancer, and it may even help to slow the onset of Alzheimer's disease.

green vegetables

Foods with Folic Acid

This is one of those rare instances where doctors say a pill is better for you than real food. For some reason, the body absorbs the synthetic pill form of folic acid better than the folic acid you receive in foods. That's why it is so important to take prenatal vitamins.

If you want to supplement the folic acid you're receiving from the vitamins, that's perfectly fine (you can't overdose on it). Here are some healthy foods you can eat to supplement your folic acid intake:

  • Breakfast cereals fortified with folic acid

  • Beef liver

  • Lentils

  • Spinach, broccoli, collard greens

  • Egg noodles

  • Citrus fruit and juice

Tip for Swallowing Those Gigantic Pills

Let's face it; many over-the-counter prenatal vitamins with folic acid are huge. A lot of doctors jokingly call them "horse pills," because they look almost as large as the pills that veterinarians prescribe for horses. If you're having trouble swallowing them, try chopping one in half with a kitchen knife. This will help you swallow it more easily. Just be sure to take both halves of the pill if you do this so you can get the full daily dose!