Updated: Jun 8
You may have heard or read about needing to take a folic acid supplement or eat more folate (this is what folic acid is called when its naturally present in foods).
A folic acid supplement is recommended prior to conception and up to 12 weeks of pregnancy to lower the risk of neural tube defects (NTDs). Don’t worry if your pregnancy was unplanned and you have not been taking a daily folic acid supplement, but do start taking it as soon as you can.
You should also try to consume more foods that contain folate (the natural form of folic acid). These are foods such as oranges, berries, green leafy vegetables, beetroot, beans and brown bread.
You should take a 400µg (micrograms) folic acid supplement daily up to the 12th week of your pregnancy.
Some women have an increased risk of having a pregnancy affected by a neural tube defect and are advised to take a slightly higher dose of folic acid. You have an increased risk if there is a family history of neural tube defects or you have diabetes. If you're taking anti-epileptic medication, you may also need to take a higher dose of folic acid. Talk to your GP if you think you may need to take a higher dose of folic acid.
Facts about neural tube defects
Neural tube defects (NTDs) are a group of serious birth defects that affect the developing nervous system.
The central nervous system (brain and the spinal cord) normally develops first as a flat sheet of cells (the neural plate), which rolls up (the neural tube) in weeks 3 and 4 of pregnancy and closes to form the central nervous system. If the tube doesn’t close properly, this results in a neural tube defect (NTD).
Some examples of NTDs are spina bifida, anencephaly or encephalocele.
At present, the precise cause of NTDs is unknown and research continues. However, we do know that taking folic acid supplements can reduce the risk of NTDs.