Folic Acid During Pregnancy And Fetal Nervous System Development

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Folic acid during pregnancy along with overall nutritional support is crucial for fetal development.

What Every Pregnant Woman Needs To Know About Folic AcidThis post may contain affiliate links, you can catch our full disclaimer at the bottom of this post.

Though a pregnant woman is “eating for two”, it is not about eating more but rather eating the proper nutritional supplements to make available the necessary building blocks for fetal growth.

Prenatal vitamins are designed to supply many of these essential nutrients.

Proper nutrition contributes to normal embryologic development at all levels. When it comes to dietary choices, it is also equally important to be sure that your prenatal diet does not lack nutrients that can contribute to the development of birth defects.

Folic Acid

Folic acid is a B vitamin (B9),  and is required by the body (as are all vitamins) for normal growth and development.

Folic acid during pregnancy is often discussed because of the association that has been made with it’s deficiency and birth defects, most notably: spina bifida (neural tube defect).

There have been some studies to suggest that folic acid may also help prevent heart defects and cleft lip and palate.

The link between folic acid deficiency and fetal nervous system abnormalities was revolutionary. Though there is some question as to whether vitamin B12 is also involved in this association with birth defects.

The incidence of spina bifida (a common form of neural tube defect) significantly decreased once folic acid supplementation became the standard of care for prenatal patients.

In the United States alone, approximately 1,500 babies are born with spina bifida annually.

Once folic acid supplementation was introduced as a necessary supplement during pregnancy, the occurrence of spina bifida per 10,000 births decreased from 5 to 3.5 (.035% to .05%).

After this scientific association between folic acid and neural tube,  development became established and folic acid during pregnancy became common practice in prenatal care, the March of Dimes became actively involved in evaluating how effective this information was being disseminated to the “pregnant community” through various public educational channels.

Gallop Polls were used to gather statistics and if became apparent that women ages 18-24 were least aware of the importance of folic acid during pregnancy and when it should be consumed to optimally benefit fetal development.

March of Dimes then took this information to various industry groups to increase public awareness.             Spina Bifida

(Courtesy of Wikipedia)

Since pregnancy is often not planned (nearly 50%) and neural tube development occurs in the first month of fetal development, it is strongly encouraged that a folic acid supplement is taken at the recommended dose of 400 mcg daily prior to conception.

This is best achieved for women in the childbearing years by taking a daily vitamin supplement with folic acid even if not planning a pregnancy.

What is best to take away from this information about the benefits of folic acid during pregnancy, is to start it as soon as possible if you are pregnant or planning pregnancy.

Do not wait for the first prenatal visit to get a prescription for prenatal vitamins from your provider.

Typically, when calling the office for your first prenatal visit, prenatal vitamins will be ordered for you to start taking at that time so there is no delay waiting for your first visit. Furthermore, there are many prenatal vitamins available “over-the-counter” with the recommended folic acid requirements.

Because nearly half of all pregnancies in the United States are unplanned, women during their reproductive years should take folic acid every day.

It has been suggested that if women took folic acid 400 mcg a day as a part of their daily routine, the occurrence of neural tube defects could be decreased by as much as 70%.

How can you get folic acid?

In addition to supplements, you can also get folic acid from your diet. Folic acid is added to many foods and can be checked where ever the words “fortified” or “enriched” are stamped on a food item. Some foods that are often enhanced with folic acid are: (this list is not all-inclusive)

  • Cornmeal
  • Flour
  • Pasta
  • Bread
  • Breakfast cereal
  • White rice

Fruits and vegetables are also good sources of folic acid: (Natural folic acid occurring foods is in the form of folate)

  • Broccoli
  • Peanuts
  • Citrus fruits
  • Orange juice
  • Beans
  • Leafy green vegetables
  • Asparagus 

Do you need extra folic acid during pregnancy? Yes, if:

  • You have had a prior pregnancy affected by a neural tube defect.
  • You have diabetes.
  • You are overweight. (Your body mass index (BMI) is 30 or higher. To find out your BMI, go to
  • You have a blood disorder such as Sickle Cell Anemia (discuss these disorders with your prenatal care provider.
  • You take a seizure medication.
Check out our other Pregnancy articles: 

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