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Why is folate important during pregnancy?

Getting adequate amounts of vitamin B9 -- also known as folate -- reduces the risk of specific birth defects, like spina bifida (an incomplete spinal cord). It also reduces your infant's cancer risk for the first six years of life.

Aim for this amount: At least 400 micrograms (mcg) from supplements, such as a prenatal folic acid vitamin pill, and a total of at least 800 mcg, including the amounts from food.

Folate is vital to making the DNA in your cells. If the synthesis of DNA is disrupted, your body’s ability to create and maintain new cells is impaired. For this reason, folate plays an important role in preventing certain birth defects.

Folate is needed to create new cells so that the baby can grow and develop. For this reason, folate plays an extremely important role during pregnancy, particularly in the first few weeks after conception, often before the mother knows she is pregnant.

A deficiency during pregnancy can result in birth defects called neural tube defects. The neural tube forms the baby’s spine, brain, and skull. If the neural tube doesn’t develop properly, two common birth defects, anencephaly and spina bifida, can occur. In anencephaly, the brain doesn’t completely form so the baby can’t move, hear, think, or function. An infant with anencephaly dies soon after birth.

In spina bifida, the baby’s spinal cord and backbone aren’t properly developed, causing learning and physical disabilities, such as the inability to walk. Folic acid reduces the risk of these birth defects by 50 to 70 percent if consumed at least the month prior to conception and during the early part of pregnancy.

Research studies to date suggest that synthetic folic acid has a stronger protective effect than the folate found naturally in foods. Because 50 percent of pregnancies in the United States are unplanned, women at risk of becoming pregnant should consume 400 micrograms of synthetic folic acid daily from fortified foods (enriched grains, breads, pasta, rice) or supplements, along with a diet high in naturally occurring folate. Women with a family history of neural tube defects should, under the guidance of their physicians, take even larger amounts.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.