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pregnant woman taking folic acid

Folic acid for pregnancy

07 Apr 2021 • 1 min read

Are you pregnant? Or is there a chance you might get pregnant? If so, it’s time for you to stock up on folic acid. But how exactly does folic acid for pregnancy help? Making the decision to start trying to conceive is exciting and nerve-wracking in equal measures. And as parents-to-be, the urge to protect and nurture your future child kicks in way before a positive pregnancy test. It’s for this reason that women contemplating pregnancy add folic acid to their daily regime even before conceiving. But do you understand why vitamin B9 (as it’s also known) is so important? Here we explore the role of folic acid for pregnancy and how it supports the development of your future child.

Do I need folic acid for pregnancy?

If you’re planning for pregnancy, it’s recommended you take folic acid supplements before you conceive and until you’re 12 weeks pregnant.1 You’ll hear this advice from your doctor, family and probably well-meaning strangers too. But why? Building up your folic acid can help to support your baby's development in the early weeks of pregnancy. Folic acid is the supplement form of a B vitamin called folate that’s used by our bodies to make new cells. This vitamin works hard to support the rapid cell growth that happens during the early development of tissues and organs in the first weeks of pregnancy. This early stage of pregnancy is an important time for many reasons. But one of the key aspects of foetal development in these first 12 weeks is the forming of the spine.2

What’s the risk of not having enough folic acid?

You’ve probably seen the words ‘neural tube’ when reading about folic acid. But what is it and what has it got to do with your baby’s development? The neural tube starts to form in early pregnancy and is essentially the structure that will in the end be your baby's brain and spinal cord. If it doesn’t fully develop or close properly, it can cause defects in the spinal cord and vertebrae, such as spina bifida. Having the right level of folic acid in your body ready for this early development of the foetus can reduce the risk of neural tube defects by up to 70%.3

Why do I need to take folic acid before conceiving?

What are the benefits of folic acid for conception? Taking folic acid doesn’t aid conception itself but it does help to prepare your body so you’re ready for pregnancy from day one. Some aspects of the development of your foetus, such as neural tube development, can be well underway before you even realise that you’re pregnant. Taking folic acid ahead of actively trying for a baby ensures you’ve built up healthy levels of this vitamin in advance.

But what if a pregnancy isn’t planned?

If you’ve stopped contraception and you could possibly get pregnant, it’s worth considering taking a folic acid supplement. And if you unexpectedly discover you’re pregnant and haven’t been taking folic acid, this isn’t a reason to worry. Any risks to your baby are low and defects are rare. However, it’s advised to start taking folic acid straight away and to continue until your 12th week of pregnancy.

How much folic acid do I need?

Your body can’t store folic acid. And although you can get folate from the food you eat, it’s not possible to get the full amount recommended during pregnancy from your diet alone. However, you can top up your supply regularly with a folic acid supplement. The NHS currently advises all women who could get pregnant to take a daily supplement of 400 micrograms of folic acid before getting pregnant and for the first 12 weeks of pregnancy.4 Some women take a higher dose of folic acid if they are more at risk of a pregnancy affected by neural tube defects. Your doctor can advise if this applies to you.

Factors that may suggest you need a higher dose of folic acid5

  • A previous pregnancy affected by a neural tube defect
  • The baby's biological father has a neural tube defect
  • A family history of neural tube defects
  • Taking anti-epilepsy medicine
  • Living with diabetes

In summary: The benefits of taking folic acid for pregnancy

A baby’s neural tube develops during the first weeks of pregnancy. This is often underway before you even realise that you’re pregnant. Having the right level of folic acid in your body in the early weeks of pregnancy can help reduce the risk of problems developing with your baby’s brain or spinal cord. For this reason taking 400mcg of folic acid until you’re 12 weeks pregnant is strongly advised. Last updated: 4 August 2020 Sources https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/pregnancy-and-baby/vitamins-minerals-supplements-pregnant/https://www.nhs.uk/common-health-questions/pregnancy/why-do-i-need-folic-acid-in-pregnancy/https://www.tommys.org/pregnancy-information/planning-pregnancy/are-you-ready-conceive/benefits-taking-folic-acid-pregnancy 4 As source 2 5 As source 2
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