Folate and pregnancy

Folate and pregnancy

If you are a woman of childbearing age, you are being encouraged to eat more folate containing foods. These foods include vegetables and fruits. This also includes foods like some breads or cereals to which folic acid has been added.  Folate is the natural form in food or ‘folic acid’ when added to food or taken as a supplement. This B-group vitamin is essential for the healthy development of babies in very early pregnancy. Low intake is linked to neural tube defects.

The neural tube becomes the baby’s brain, spinal cord and the bones that enclose them. If something goes wrong in development, it causes a neural tube defect. This can lead to disability.

The recommended daily intake of folate for women is 400 micrograms per day. Folate requirements are higher in pregnancy (600 micrograms). The vitamin is affected by how foods are cooked and stored.  It can be hard to eat enough foods containing folate. So knowing how much folate you are consuming each day is difficult.

If you are planning a pregnancy or may be likely to become pregnant, current advice is:

  • to take a daily supplement containing 0.5 mg (500 micrograms) of folic acid before you get pregnant (for at least one month)
  • take it for the first three months of pregnancy.

Tips to increase your folate intake from food:

  • Eat folate-rich foods – folate is found in vegetables (such as asparagus, spinach and broccoli) and fruits (such as oranges, bananas and strawberries) as well as legumes (such as chickpeas, dried beans and lentils), cereals, nuts and yeast extracts such as Vegemite.
  • Choose foods that have added folic acid – this includes some breakfast cereals and fruit juices, and most bread. Three slices of fortified bread will provide around 120 micrograms of folic acid.

Some women need more folate.  You are at greater risk if you (or your partner):

  • already have a baby with a neural tube defect
  • have a neural tube defect yourself
  • have a close relative affected by a neural tube defect
  • take medicine for epilepsy or seizures – some medications affect the absorption of folate
  • have type 1 diabetes.

Some women have a higher risk of having a baby with a neural tube defect. For these women dietary folate alone is not sufficient. Always discuss folic acid supplements with your doctor.

Folic acid supplements are available over the counter from pharmacies and through your doctor at varying doses. Look for supplements that contain at least 400 micrograms of folic acid; these will generally be supplements containing only folic acid or special pregnancy supplements. Multi-vitamin supplements generally contain less. Your doctor, midwife, pharmacist or a dietitian can help you to choose the best supplement for your need.

Eating Well for Women

Folate for pregnant women

There is more information about neural tube defects on the Australian Spina Bifida & Hydrocephalus Association (ASBHA) website.