Folic acid (or folate) — protecting your baby’s future health
Even before you know you’re pregnant, folic acid — also known as folate — supports your baby’s development. It plays a significant role in the formation of your baby’s neural tube. This is formed in the first month of pregnancy and eventually becomes your baby’s spinal cord and brain. Together, these will form your baby’s central nervous system and the control centre for your baby’s future growth, development, and normal functioning later in life.
An adequate intake of folic acid has been shown to reduce the risk of neural tube defects (NTDs) including spina bifida. Spina bifida is the name given to a condition when the spinal column fails to close.
Although folate is present in many foods, it is difficult to get sufficient levels from your diet. Folic acid is strongly recommended as a nutritional supplement during pregnancy to support your growing baby.
How much folic acid do I need during pregnancy?
Folate is a B vitamin, known as folate when found naturally in foods and as folic acid when it is used to fortify foods such as bread and breakfast cereal, or in a dietary supplement.
It is recommended that women take a folic acid supplement, particularly in the first trimester. Ideally, it’s best to start 4 weeks before conception and continue the supplement for the first trimester when your baby’s neural tube develops, forms and closes. By taking a folic acid supplement at the recommended dose you will reduce the risk of your baby having an NTD.
In Australia all wheat flours (except organic) are fortified with folic acid, this means most breads in Australia contain folic acid. In New Zealand it is voluntary for foods to be fortified with folic acid. Because of this, the amount of folic acid recommended to be supplemented in New Zealand for pregnant women is higher than in Australia.
Some prenatal supplements contain folic acid. Alternatively you can take a separate supplement for folic acid. Ask your health care professional for information on access to supplements and the recommended dose for you.
How to increase your folate/folic acid intake to help reduce the risk of NTDs
1. Increase your intake of folate-rich foods such as:
- Green, leafy vegetables
- Citrus fruits
- Wholemeal bread
- Fortified breads, cereals, fruit juices or milks
2. Try these folate-rich meals and snacks:
- Lentil and chard curry with brown rice
- Baked beans on whole-meal toast
- Roasted kale chips
- Broccoli dipped in hummus
3. Take a folic acid supplement. Talk to your health care professional about access to these and the recommended dose.
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