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January is birth defect prevention month. Getting enough folic acid, a B vitamin prior to getting pregnant and while pregnant will decrease the chances of a baby being born with a birth defect by 50-70%.

Folic acid is a B vitamin that every cell in your body needs for normal growth and development. Not having enough folic acid may result in babies being born with neural tube defects. This is when the baby’s neural tube doesn’t completely close resulting in birth defects of the spine or brain such as spina bifida and anencephaly. Spina bifida is incomplete development of the spinal cord or the vertebra. Anecephaly is incomplete development of parts of the brain.

It is estimated that 3,000 U.S. babies per year are affected by neural tube defects. Neural tube defects can happen during the first month of pregnancy that is why it is essential that women of child bearing years and pregnant women get enough folic acid.

Since half of all pregnancies are unplanned, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recommend all women between the ages 15-45 years of age consume folic acid daily. This will help prevent neural tube defects which happen very early in the pregnancy, when a woman may not even know that she is pregnant. Doctors recommend a folic acid supplement because most women don’t get enough folate from food alone; although, our bodies absorb folate better in food form, so eating various sources of food with folate is still important.

It is important to note that Folic Acid is manmade and put into supplements/pills. Folate is what occurs naturally in foods. Either way folic acid or folate is the same thing.

Foods that are a Good Source of Folate

  • Dark Green Vegetables – spinach, broccoli, asparagus, etc.
  • Beans
  • Peanuts
  • Citrus Fruits - oranges, grapefruit
  • Avocado
  • Enriched Grain Products - bread, pasta, crackers, flour, rice
  • Fortified Cereals

One small change, such as eating breakfast or adding a piece of fruit can boost your folate intake. Most doctors recommend taking 400 micrograms of folic acid when you are trying to conceive and for the first 3 months of pregnancy. Then increasing to 600 micrograms during the last 4-9 months of pregnancy and while breastfeeding. It is important to ask your doctor what they recommend.

Some research also shows that folic acid may reduce the risk of miscarriages, heart defects, cleft lip and palate in babies. For more information on folate check out this video and fact sheet from Nebraska Extension.

Carrie Miller MS RD

Registered Dietitian from UNL Extension

Carrie Miller is a mother of two and Registered Dietitian with a Master degree in Nutritional Science and Dietetics. Carrie has worked at UNL Extension in Omaha for over 12 years managing the Nutrition Education Program and teaching limited resource audiences. Special interests include feeding children healthy, fun foods, and finding time to get outside and be active. Learn more about Carrie and the other UNL Extension nutrition experts at ...

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Categories: nutrition, pregnancy,