Pregnancy and Folic Acid

folic acid in pregnancy

What is folic acid?

Folic acid (folate) is a vitamin and is needed to make new cells in the body. Pregnant women in particular need a good supply of folic acid, which is used by the developing baby. The very early stages of pregnancy are crucial in the need for folic acid. This is why folic acid supplements are recommended for women planning a pregnancy.
Many foods contain folic acid, including vegetables such as spinach, sprouts, broccoli, green beans, and potatoes. Some bread and breakfast cereals are fortified with folic acid. However, the intake for each individual can vary.

Folic acid supplements and pregnancy

If you take folic acid tablets (supplements) in early pregnancy you reduce the risk of having a baby born with a spinal cord problem, such as spina bifida. This is because the early development of the baby's spinal cord requires a regular, good supply of folic acid. There is evidence that folic acid also reduces the risk of having a baby born with a cleft lip and palate, a heart defect (congenital heart disease), and the risk of a premature (preterm or early) labour.

Ideally, start taking folic acid tablets before becoming pregnant. The common advice is to start from the time you plan to become pregnant. If the pregnancy is unplanned then start taking folic acid tablets as soon as you know that you are pregnant.

Continue to take folic acid tablets for the first 12 weeks of pregnancy.

For most women, the dose is 400 micrograms (0.4 mg) a day.

If your risk of having a child with a spinal cord problem is increased then the dose is higher (5 mg a day - you need a prescription for this higher dose). That is, if:

  1. You have had a previously affected pregnancy.
  2. You or your partner have (or have a family of) a spinal cord defect.
  3. You are taking medication for epilepsy.
  4. You are obese - especially if your Body Mass Index (BMI) is 30 or more.
  5. You have coeliac disease, diabetes, sickle cell anaemia, or thalassaemia.

In addition to folic acid supplements, you should eat a healthy diet when you are pregnant, which should include foods rich in folic acid.

Are there any side-effects or risks when taking folic acid?

No. Folic acid is a naturally occurring vitamin which your body needs. It is not a drug (medicine).

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