A guide to folic acid in pregnancy
Folic, also known as vitamin B9, is a daily supplement to help your unborn baby's healthy development in the womb
At a glance
- Promotes healthy foetus development
- Leafy greens are a great natural source of folic acid
- Supplements are free from NHS
Why do we need folic acid in pregnancy?
Folic acid (also known as vitamin B9) is important for the development of a healthy baby, reducing the risk of neural tube defects (NTDs), such as spina bifida. It also helps to make new proteins and healthy red and white blood cells.
As well as helping with your unborn baby’s development, folic acid is also good for you too. A lack of folic acid can lead to fewer red blood cells and anaemia, so it’s important that you get enough folic acid in pregnancy for both you and your baby.
How much folic acid do I need to take?
The Department of Health recommends you take a daily 400 micrograms (mcg) supplement of folic acid starting three months before you start trying for a baby. Your baby’s spine starts developing straight after you conceive, so you should start taking folic acid when you stop using contraception. Just one daily tablet contains exactly the amount you need.
You need take a higher dose of folic acid – 5 milligrams (mg) – daily if:
- You have had a baby with a neural tube defect before
- You or your partner has a neural tube defect
- You are on anti-epilepsy drugs
- You have coeliac disease, diabetes, small bowel disease, short bowel syndrome, sickle cell disease or thalassaemia
If you’re concerned, have a chat with your doctor.
When should I stop taking folic acid?
Once you reach 12 weeks pregnant your baby’s spine will have developed, so you can stop taking folic acid if you wish. However you can continue to take supplements after 12 weeks if you choose to and it won’t harm your baby to do so. Pregnancy vitamins and supplements which are designed to be taken all the way through pregnancy contain folic acid, as well as other key vitamins for a healthy pregnancy, such as vitamin D.
Can I get folic acid from food?
You can, but probably not enough. The natural form of folic acid, folates, is found in lots of different foods, including green leafy vegetables, beans, chickpeas, lentils and yeast extract. It’s worth remembering that folates will dissolve in water so make sure you’re steaming your veggies to keep the goodness in.
Some foods, such as bread and cereals, are fortified with folic acid – it’ll say so on the packaging. But steer clear of liver– it is high in folic acid, but also contains lots of vitamin A, which could harm your unborn baby. It’s hard to get enough folic acid just from food - the only way you can really know for sure is by popping a supplement.
What if it’s too late to take folic acid?
Don’t worry - the risk of your baby having a neural tube defect is small, even if you haven’t been taking folic acid. Why not chat to your midwife or GP if you feel concerned?
Where can I get folic acid supplements from?
You’ll find them in chemists, health food shops and big supermarkets. And you can get them on prescription from your doctor. If you get Healthy Start vouchers, you can get the supplements free from the NHS without a prescription.