The importance of taking a prenatal vitamin during pregnancy is well-known, but one of the most crucial components of that vitamin is known as folic acid. Folic acid is a human-made vitamin that helps with the development of a baby’s brain and spinal cord. Since the brain and spinal cord have a rapid period of development during the first three months of pregnancy, this is the most critical time to take the recommended dosage of folic acid.

How Folic Acid Helps
Folic acid and the naturally occurring vitamin, folate, both assist in making a baby’s red blood cells. Red blood cells then help form the baby’s brain- specifically the neural tube- and the spinal cord. Getting enough folic acid reduces the chances of developing severe congenital disabilities like spina bifida and anencephaly.

How Much Folic Acid Is Recommended
The Centers for Disease Control has a set amount of folic acid that it recommends for women of childbearing age. Women of childbearing age should have at least 400 mcg of folic acid every day. This amount is recommended even for women that are not pregnant or do not plan on becoming pregnant since unplanned pregnancies can also greatly benefit from regular folic acid intake.

Most congenital disabilities occur within the first three months of pregnancy. Hence, the recommended amount of folic acid should be taken at least one month before and three months after a baby is conceived.

Folic Acid and Folate Sources
Folic acid is found in many prenatal and daily vitamins. It’s a good idea to review which prenatal vitamin you’re taking with your obstetrician to ensure you’re receiving the recommended amount of this critical vitamin.

Folate is a naturally-occurring vitamin found in fortified foods like breakfast cereal, white bread, white rice, and white pasta. It’s also found in dark-green vegetables like spinach and kale and citrus fruits like oranges and grapefruit.

Some women have a greater risk of giving birth to babies with a congenital disability. These women may be advised to take a higher dose of folic acid each day. As always, women should consult with their health care provider about how much folic acid is appropriate for them.