Take folic acid before you're pregnant
Folic acid is B vitamin that every cell in your body needs for normal growth and development. If women of childbearing age take 400 micrograms of folic acid every day before and during early pregnancy, it may help reduce their baby’s risk for birth defects of the brain and spine called neural tube defects (NTDs). The neural tube is the part of a developing baby that becomes the brain and spinal cord. An NTD can happen when the neural tube doesn’t close completely.
About 3,000 pregnancies are affected by NTDs each year in the United States. If all women take 400 micrograms of folic acid every day before getting pregnant and during early pregnancy, it may help reduce the number of pregnancies affected by NTDs by up to 70 percent. Some studies show that folic acid also may help prevent heart defects in a baby and birth defects in a baby’s mouth called cleft lip and palate.
Who should take folic acid?
All women, even if they’re not trying to get pregnant, should take folic acid.
Folic acid helps prevent NTDs only if taken before pregnancy and during the first few weeks of pregnancy, often before a woman may even know she’s pregnant. Because nearly half of all pregnancies in the United States are unplanned, it's important that all women take folic acid every day.
How can you get folic acid?
Before pregnancy, take a multivitamin that has 400 micrograms of folic acid in it every day as part of healthy eating. Most multivitamins have this amount, but check the label to be sure.
During pregnancy, take a prenatal vitamin each day that has 600 micrograms of folic acid in it. Your health care provider can prescribe a prenatal vitamin for you. You can also get prenatal vitamins over the counter without a prescription.
Most women don’t need more than 1,000 micrograms of folic acid each day. But some women, like those who’ve had a pregnancy affected by NTDs or women with sickle cell disease, may need more. Talk to your provider to make sure you get the right amount.
Can you get folic acid from food?
Yes. Some flour, breads, cereals and pasta have folic acid added to them. Look for “fortified” or “enriched” on the package to know if the product has folic acid in it.
You also can get folic acid from some fruits and vegetables. When folic acid is naturally in a food, it’s called folate. Foods that are good sources of folate are:
- Beans, like lentils, pinto beans and black beans
- Leafy green vegetables, like spinach and Romaine lettuce
- Peanuts (But don’t eat them if you have a peanut allergy)
- Citrus fruits, like oranges and grapefruit
- Orange juice (From concentrate is best)
It's hard to get all the folic acid you need from food. So even if you eat foods that have folic acid in them, take your multivitamin each day, too.
What other benefits does folic acid have?
Folic acid plays an important role in helping your body make red blood cells. Red blood cells are important because they carry oxygen from your lungs to all parts of your body. Some studies show that folic acid may help protect you from heart disease. Scientists are still learning about all the benefits of folic acid.
For more information
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)
CDC Show Your Love Campaign
Last reviewed September 2012
See also: Eating healthy during pregnancy
Frequently Asked Questions
Can I get folic acid from food?
Yes, but it's sometimes hard to get enough folic acid each day just from food. Foods that contain folate (the natural form of folic acid) include lentils, spinach, black beans, peanuts, orange juice, romaine lettuce and broccoli. You have to eat a lot of these foods to get the right amount of folic acid. Fortified grains, like bread, pasta and breakfast cereal, have more folic acid. "Fortified" means that folic acid has been added to the food. Check the product label to see how much folic acid each serving contains. The simplest way to get enough folic acid every day is to take a multivitamin or a prenatal vitamin. If you're not pregnant yet, take a multivitamin with 400 micrograms (mcg) of folic acid in it each day. If you’re pregnant, take a prenatal vitamin with at least 600 mcg of folic acid in it each day.
What if I didn't take folic acid before pregnancy?
If you don't take folic acid before getting pregnant (conception), it doesn't necessarily mean that your baby will be born with birth defects. However, it's true that folic acid does help to prevent certain birth defects. But it only works if it's taken before getting pregnant and at the beginning of the pregnancy, often before a woman may even know she's pregnant.
Since nearly half of all pregnancies in the United States are unplanned, it's important that all women of childbearing age (even if they're not trying to get pregnant) get at least 400 micrograms of folic acid every day. Take a multivitamin with folic acid before pregnancy. During pregnancy, switch to a prenatal vitamin, which should have 600 micrograms of folic acid.
What's the best way to get the right amount of folic acid?
Before pregnancy, take a multivitamin that contains 400 micrograms (mcg) of folic acid every day. If women of childbearing age take 400 micrograms of folic acid every day before and during early pregnancy, it may help reduce their baby’s risk for birth defects of the brain and spin called neural tube defects (NTDs). During pregnancy, you need at least 600 mcg of folic acid very day. Your prenatal vitamin should have this amount. Talk to your provider about taking a prenatal vitamin.
Last reviewed November 2012