Plan Ahead: Folic Acid Can Help Prevent Certain Birth Defects
Learn how to get healthy before and during pregnancy to increase your chances of having a healthy baby. You can plan ahead by getting enough folic acid each day.
Folic acid is a B vitamin. It is an important part of preconception health, which refers to the health of women and men during their reproductive years. If a woman consumes the recommended amount of folic acid before and during early pregnancy, it can help prevent some major birth defects of the baby's brain (known as anencephaly) and spine (known as spina bifida). Anencephaly is a serious birth defect in which parts of a baby's brain and skull do not form correctly. Babies born with anencephaly cannot survive. Spina bifida is a serious birth defect in which a baby's spine does not develop correctly, and can result in some severe physical disabilities. All women, but especially those who want to become pregnant, need 400 micrograms (mcg) of folic acid every day.
Do I need folic acid?
Yes! Every woman needs to get enough folic acid each day, even if she does not plan to become pregnant. This is because our bodies make new cells every day—blood, skin, hair, nails and others. Folic acid is needed to make these new cells. Start a healthy habit today and get 400 mcg of folic acid every day.
Why can't I wait until I'm pregnant to start taking folic acid?
Birth defects of the brain and spine (anencephaly and spina bifida) happen in the first few weeks of pregnancy, often before a woman finds out she's pregnant. Also, half of all pregnancies in the United States are unplanned. These are two reasons why it is important for all women who can get pregnant to be sure to get 400 mcg of folic acid every day, even if they aren't planning a pregnancy any time soon. By the time a woman realizes she's pregnant, it might be too late to prevent these birth defects. Plan ahead! Starting today is the best option.
How do I get folic acid?
An easy way to be sure you're getting enough folic acid is to take a daily multivitamin with folic acid in it. Most multivitamins have all the folic acid you need. If you get an upset stomach from taking a multivitamin, try taking it with meals or just before bed. If you have trouble taking pills, you can try a multivitamin that is gummy or chewable. Also be sure to take it with a full glass of water.
Folic acid has been added to foods, such as enriched breads, pastas, rice and cereals. Check the Nutrition Facts label on the food packaging. A serving of some cereals has 100% of the folic acid that you need each day. Recently, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved the addition of folic acid to corn masa flour. Corn masa flour is used to make foods like corn chips, tortillas, and taco shells.
In addition to getting 400 mcg of folic acid from supplements and fortified foods, you can eat a diet rich in folate. You can get food folate from beans, peas and lentils, oranges and orange juice, asparagus and broccoli, and dark leafy green vegetables such as spinach, and mustard greens.
CDC's National Center on Birth Defects and Developmental Disabilities (NCBDDD) has made a significant contribution to neural tube defects prevention in the United States over the past two decades, and has led the way in establishing that every woman who can get pregnant should consume 400 mcg of folic acid daily to prevent neural tube defects.
Birth Defects COUNT
NCBDDD has a global initiative, Birth Defects COUNT (Countries and Organizations United for Neural Tube Defects Prevention), to significantly reduce death and lifelong disability resulting from the more than 300,000 neural tube defects that occur worldwide each year.
The initiative builds on CDC's expertise and experience in neural tube defects prevention and aims to increase folic acid intake among women of reproductive age to help reduce neural tube defects globally. Through Birth Defects COUNT, CDC provides the scientific and programmatic expertise to expand neural tube defects prevention efforts and strengthen the ability to track rates of birth defects worldwide. These efforts can help prevent approximately 150,000-210,000 neural tube defects each year in low- and middle-resource countries.
Resources for Health Professionals
CDC has folic acid educational materials for use by health professionals in their work with women and families that can be downloaded for free and are available in English and Spanish. Visit our website to download your copy today!