Whether you're already expecting — or just planning to be — taking the right vitamins can help ensure a healthy baby. One of the most important for you and your baby is folic acid. Up to 70 percent of all neural tube defects (NTDs) — birth defects of the brain and spine — could be prevented if every woman of childbearing age took folic acid daily, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

What is Folic Acid?

Folic acid is a member of the B-vitamin family. It occurs naturally in foods as folates, and is available in synthetic form in vitamin pills. Foods that contain folates include orange juice, green leafy vegetables, and beans. Fortified breakfast cereals, enriched grain products, and vitamins contain a synthetic form of folic acid. The synthetic form is more easily absorbed by your body than the natural form.

The Role of Folic Acid

While researchers don't know why folic acid helps prevent birth defects, it has been shown to decrease the risk of the most common NTDs: spina bifida (the leading cause of childhood paralysis) and anencephaly (a fatal condition in which an infant is born with a severely underdeveloped brain and skull).

Not only does folic acid combat these NTDs, but it may also help keep your baby from developing a heart defect, cleft lip, or cleft palate.

Additionally, a pregnant woman needs folic acid to help support the rapid growth of the placenta and fetus. The nutrient aids in baby's DNA production. Cell division and fetal growth can become impaired without it. One study found that women with folic acid deficiencies were two to three times more likely to have a premature baby or a baby of low birth weight than those who got enough of the vitamin.

Boost Your Intake

The March of Dimes, the CDC, and the Institute of Medicine recommend that all women consume at least 400 micrograms of the synthetic form a day, and that pregnant women consume 600 micrograms, either from a prenatal vitamin or multivitamin, or by consuming a fortified breakfast cereal that contains 400 micrograms of folic acid in one bowl.

Foods that are rich in folates include:

  • Fruits and fruit juices
  • Leafy green vegetables
  • Beans
  • Chickpeas
  • Lima beans
  • Asparagus
  • Peas
  • Peanuts
  • Sunflower seeds
  • Wheat germ

In addition, some foods are fortified with folic acid that your body can absorb more easily than natural folates. Foods that may be labeled "enriched" (required to have 140 micrograms of folic acid per 100 grams of grain) include:

  • Breakfast cereals
  • Pasta
  • Rice
  • Bread

If you've already had a baby with an NTD, consult your doctor about how much folic acid you should take before your next pregnancy. Studies have shown that taking a larger dose (4 milligrams) beginning at least one month before pregnancy and during the first trimester reduces the risk of having another affected pregnancy by about 70 percent.

Richard H. Schwarz, MD, obstetrical consultant to the March of Dimes Birth Defects Foundation, is a former president of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, chairman of the department of obstetrics and gynecology at New York Methodist Hospital in Brooklyn, and professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Cornell University Medical College in New York City.

The information on this Web site is designed for educational purposes only. It is not intended to be a substitute for informed medical advice or care. You should not use this information to diagnose or treat any health problems or illnesses without consulting your pediatrician or family doctor. Please consult a doctor with any questions or concerns you might have regarding your or your child's condition.