Help prevent neural tube defects before you get pregnant

March 3, 2022

Did you know that you can reduce your baby’s risk for neural tube defects (also called NTDs) before you get pregnant? NTDs are birth defects of the brain, spine and spinal cord. NTDs can cause serious problems for babies.

Getting enough folic acid is one of the best ways to help prevent an NTD in your baby. Folic acid is a vitamin that every cell in your body needs for healthy growth and development. But timing is important: folic acid helps prevent NTDs only if you take it before you get pregnant and during early pregnancy.

What are some examples of NTDs?

The two most common types of NTDs are:

  • Spina bifida. This happens when the spinal cord or bones of the spine don’t form correctly, leaving a gap or opening. Spina bifida can cause health problems for your baby, such as paralysis (not being able to move parts of the body) and learning and developmental disabilities.
  • Anencephaly. This happens when the upper part of the neural tube that forms the brain doesn’t close completely. Babies with this condition are missing parts of their brain and skull. Most babies with anencephaly die shortly after birth.

How much folic acid do you need to help prevent NTDs?

Take a vitamin supplement that has 400 micrograms of folic acid every day. This is important even if you’re not trying to get pregnant, because many pregnancies are unplanned. Plus, an NTD can happen before you even know you’re pregnant.

If you already had a pregnancy affected by an NTD or if you or your partner has an NTD, you may need a higher amount of folic acid. Talk to your provider about how much is right for you. The CDC recommends that people who’ve had a pregnancy affected by an NTD get 4,000 micrograms of folic acid each day starting at least 3 months before pregnancy and through the first 3 months of pregnancy.

Are there other ways to get folic acid?

Yes! The CDC recommends getting folic acid from foods, too. You can do this in two ways:

Foods that have folate. Folate is folic acid that’s naturally in a food. Foods that are good sources of folate are:

  • Legumes. These are foods like lentils, peas and beans.
  • Dark green leafy vegetables, like spinach
  • Certain other vegetables, like asparagus, brussel sprouts and broccoli
  • Nuts, like walnuts and peanuts
  • Citrus fruits, like oranges and grapefruit
  • Orange juice

Foods that are fortified with folic acid. Fortified means a food has folic acid added to it. Look for the word “fortified” or “enriched” on labels of foods like: 

  • Bread
  • Breakfast cereal
  • Pasta
  • White rice
  • Products made from a kind of flour called corn masa, like tortillas, taco shells and tamales

How else can you reduce your baby’s risk for NTDs before pregnancy?

Here are some things you can do:

Some research suggests that a high body temperature during early pregnancy may increase the risk for NTDs. Talk to your provider if you have a fever during early pregnancy. And it’s best not to used hot tubs or saunas if you’re pregnant. If you do use them, limit the time to less than 10 minutes.

Learn more about neural tube defects. Here are more tips from the CDC for preventing birth defects.