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Folic acid prevents birth defects

Folic acid prevents birth defects

More than 120,000 babies are born with a birth defect each year in the United States. In fact, birth defects are the leading cause of infant deaths. There are thousands of different birth defects, affecting the structure or function of every part of the human body.

But taking a simple vitamin called folic acid before and during early pregnancy can help prevent birth defects of the brain and spine called neural tube defects (also called NTDs). Some studies show that it also may help prevent heart defects in a baby and birth defects in a baby's mouth called cleft lip and palate.

Folic acid is a B vitamin needed for normal growth and development. It helps the body make red blood cells that carry oxygen from the lungs to all parts of the body.

Women who take folic acid before pregnancy can help prevent NTDs in their babies. The neural tube is the part of a developing baby that becomes the brain and spinal cord. NTDs happen in the first month of pregnancy, before a woman may know she is pregnant. This is why it's important that women have enough folic acid in their body before they get pregnant.

Because nearly half of all pregnancies in the United States are unplanned, all women should take folic acid every day. Women of childbearing age should take a multivitamin with 400 micrograms of folic acid every day, even if they're not trying to get pregnant.

NTDs affect about 3,000 pregnancies each year in the United States. If all women take 400 micrograms of folic acid every day before getting pregnant and during early pregnancy, it may help prevent up to 7 in 10 (70 percent) NTDs.

During pregnancy, women should take a prenatal vitamin each day that has 600 micrograms of folic acid in it. Women need more folic acid during pregnancy to help their babies grow and develop. Healthcare providers can prescribe prenatal vitamins, or they are available over the counter without a prescription.

There is also folic acid in certain foods. Some flour, breads, cereals, rice and pasta have folic acid added to them. Look for the word "fortified" or "enriched" on the product label to know if it has added folic acid.

Some fruits and vegetables are good sources of folic acid. When folic acid is naturally in a food, it's called folate. Foods that are good sources of folate are:

  • Beans, like lentils, pinto beans and black beans
  • Leafy green vegetables, like spinach and Romaine lettuce
  • Asparagus
  • Broccoli
  • Peanuts (But don't eat them if you have a peanut allergy.)
  • Citrus fruits, like oranges and grapefruit
  • Orange juice (From concentrate is best.)

It can be hard to get all the folic acid you need just from food. So even if you eat foods that have folic acid in them, take your multivitamin each day, too.

This information provided courtesy of the March of Dimes. The March of Dimes works to end premature birth and other problems that threaten babies. We help moms have full-term pregnancies and healthy babies. If something goes wrong, we offer information and comfort to families. We research the reasons why babies are born too soon or very sick and work on prevention. The March of Dimes provides grants to researchers, with the goal of understanding the causes of birth defects and developing new ways to prevent and treat them.

The Campbell County Health Maternal Child Department encourages you to discuss proper nutrition during your pregnancy with your OB GYN or primary care doctor. Need a doctor, check out our Find a Provider tab.