Whether you’re trying for a baby, or already pregnant, you would have heard of folic acid. But what is it and why do you need it?
Folic acid is one of the B group of vitamins, also known as vitamin B9. Your body needs it and uses it, along with vitamin B12, to produce and maintain new cells. Folate is found naturally in foods such as green vegetables. Other foods, such as bread and cereals, have folic acid added to them.
A diet rich in folate-filled foods normally provides the body with enough folic acid. But when you’re planning for a baby or are pregnant, you need to give your folic acid levels a boost. Why? Folic acid is very important for the development of a healthy foetus. “It’s vital for the development of the foetus’s spinal cord,” explains GP Dr Philippa Kaye, author of Your Pregnancy Week by Week: Practical and Reassuring Advice from Conception to Birth. “Taking a supplement helps reduce the likelihood of your baby developing a neural tube defect (NTD), such as spina bifida.”
“During the third week of an embryo’s life, a thickening forms along the length of its back where the spine will eventually develop,” explains Dr Sarah Brewer, author of Planning
a baby? A complete guide to pre-conceptual care . “The edges of this thickening grow upwards, forming a central groove. This neural groove continues to deepen and its walls fold over until they meet. After three or four days, fusion completes to form the neural tube. The tube develops into the spinal cord. If the tube fails to close properly, part of the spinal cord is left exposed to cause spina bifida.” Taking folic acid
reduces the risk of that happening.
The Department of Health recommends that mums-to-be take a daily supplement
of 400mcg. Ideally, this should be taken three months before conception and for the first 12 weeks of your pregnancy. However, your doctor will talk to you about increased prescribed doses if you have spina bifida; if you already have a baby with a neural tube defect; if you’re breastfeeding another baby; or if you have coeliac disease.
Remember that the majority of babies are born without neural tube defects, so if you haven’t taken folic acid in the first few or even 12 weeks, it doesn’t mean your baby will automatically have problems. “But if you’ve found out you’re pregnant then start taking folic acid straightaway,” says Philippa. “It’s difficult not to worry but remember your foetus will always be closely monitored.”
“If you’re concerned, talk to your midwife or GP,” says Philippa. “High-risk parents, such
as those who’ve previously had a baby with a neural tube defect, may be offered a blood test in the second trimester to establish the risk to their baby.”
Liver is rich in folic acid but you mustn’t eat it during pregnancy as it also has high levels of vitamin A, too much of which can cause birth defects in your baby.
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