Folic acid for pregnancy
Why is folic acid so important during pregnancy?
Even before you know you’re pregnant, folate, or folic acid in its manufactured form, is performing its role of supporting your baby’s development. It plays a significant role in the formation of your baby’s neural tube – the structure that forms in the first month of life that eventually becomes your baby’s spinal cord and brain.
Together, these will form your baby’s central nervous system, which will act as the control centre for your baby’s whole body, and provide the foundation for all future growth, development, and normal functioning later in life. Since there is a well-established relationship between maternal folic acid intake and development of the neural tube in the young foetus, it is easy to see why taking a supplement of folic acid is strongly recommended during early pregnancy.
An adequate intake of folic acid has been shown to reduce the risk of neural tube defects (NTDs) including spina bifida. This condition results from the spinal column not closing properly, leaving the spinal cord exposed and potentially causing developmental problems.
Although folate is present in many foods, it’s difficult to get sufficient levels from your diet. Taking a daily supplement means you can be sure you’re getting the amount you need to support your growing baby.
How much folic acid do you need when you’re pregnant?
The Department of Health recommends that you should take a daily supplement of 400 micrograms of folic acid before you're pregnant and during the first 12 weeks of pregnancy, when your baby's spine is developing2.
It’s best to start taking it while you’re trying to conceive so that you have a healthy intake from the moment your pregnancy begins. You should continue to take it throughout your first trimester, which is when your baby’s neural tube develops, forms and closes.
Many prenatal supplements contain the recommended 400mcg of folic acid, or you can choose to take a separate one if you prefer.
If you’re on a lower income, you may qualify for free supplements through Healthy Start, a government-run initiative. Your midwife will be able to tell you more about this scheme.
Some women are at higher risk of neural tube defects and may need to take more folic acid during their pregnancy to provide greater protection. Your doctor may recommend taking 5000mcg per day in the following circumstances:
- If you or your partner have a neural tube defect.
- If there is any history of neural tube defects in your families.
- If you have had another pregnancy affected by neural tube defects.
- If you have diabetes.
- If you are taking medication for epilepsy.
If you’re in your first trimester and didn’t take folic acid before getting pregnant, don’t worry. Start taking it now and carry on until at least your 12th week.
Can you have too much folic acid when pregnant?
While it’s unlikely that you’ll take on too much folic acid through your diet, it’s important to stick to the recommended dosage in supplements. As with all supplements, taking above the recommended amount can pose health risks to both you and your developing baby. If in doubt, ask your midwife or other health care professional.
Which foods contain folic acid?
Folate, which is folic acid in its natural form, is found in foods like leafy green vegetables, brown rice and granary bread. Although some foods provide folate, the best way to ensure your recommended intake of 400mcg per day is to take a supplement.
It’s worth noting that as a water-soluble nutrient, folate is sensitive to certain cooking methods, particularly boiling and stewing. Vegetables can lose up to 40% of their folate if you boil them, and stewing can cause an even greater loss of up to 80%. When preparing folate-rich vegetables, you can protect the nutritional content by steaming, blanching or baking them, or choosing to eat them raw. If you do boil them, aim to use the cooking water, either in a gravy or as a nutritional addition to soup3.
|Brussels sprouts (boiled)
|Mixed nuts (raw)
|White cabbage (raw)
|Peas (frozen, boiled)
|Green and brown lentils (boiled)
Try increasing your intake with these folate-rich snacks and meals:
- Lentil and chard curry with brown rice
- Baked beans on granary toast
- Roasted kale chips
- Broccoli dipped in hummus
- Corn and courgette fritters with poached eggs
- Beetroot risotto with feta and mint
- Roast chickpeas and almonds with smoked paprika
- NHS. Spina Bifida [Online]. 2017. Available at: www.nhs.uk/conditions/Spina-bifida/Pages/Introduction.aspx [Accessed March 2020]
- NHS. Why do I need folic acid in pregnancy? [Online]. 2018. Available at: www.nhs.uk/chq/Pages/913.aspx?categoryid=54&subcategoryid=129 [Accessed March 2020]
- McKillop DJ et al. The effect of different cooking methods on folate retention in various foods that are amongst the major contributors to folate intake in the UK diet [Online]. 2002. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12493090 [Accessed March 2020]
Last reviewed: 09th September 2020
Reviewed by Nutricia’s Medical and Scientific Affairs Team