Understanding why folic acid is so important during pregnancy

We know we have to take folic acid during, and before pregnancy, but do we know why? Here’s the answer

The importance of folic acid in pregnancy

Your guide to understanding the importance of taking folic acid during pregnancy

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This great little vitamin, also known as vitamin B9, is so important to your baby’s healthy development, you need to start taking it months before you even conceive.

Why do we need folic acid?

Folic acid is important for the development of a healthy foetus, 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 - crucial for DNA synthesis, rapid cell division and growth.

How much folic acid do I need to take?

You need to take a daily 400 micrograms (mcg) supplement three months before you get pregnant and up to the first 12 weeks of pregnancy. Your baby’s spine starts developing straight after you conceive, so ideally you should start taking folic acid when you stop using contraception. 

If your BMI is 30 or above it is advised to take a daily dose of 5 mg of folic acid. This is a higher dose than the usual pregnancy dose, and must be prescribed by a doctor. You may also be prescribed a higher dose if there is a history of spina bifida in you or your partner or a history in your families, or if you have had a baby with spina bifida previously you could be advised to take a higher dose. Also those who have diabetes or are on medication for epilepsy may also be prescribed a higher dose of folic acid. It's advisable to start taking it a month before you conceive and continue to take it until you reach your 13th week of pregnancy. If you have not started taking it early, it is still worth taking it once you find out you're pregnant.

Can I get folic acid from food?

You can, but probably not enough. It’s important to eat foods that are rich in folate, like brown rice, green leafy veg and some fortified cereals. But the only way you’ll know for sure you’re getting enough 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 still small. 

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 GP. If you get Healthy Start vouchers, you can get the supplements free from the NHS without a prescription.

Understanding why folic acid is so important during pregnancy