What is Folic Acid?

Folic acid is a B vitamin (vitamin B9) that has lots of important functions in our bodies, including helping to make new proteins and healthy red and white blood cells (also crucial in DNA synthesis, rapid cell division and growth). During pregnancy, it also helps to lower your unborn baby’s risk of spina bifida and other neural tube defects.

How much folic acid do I need to take?

The Ministry of Health recommends you take a daily 800 micrograms (mcg) supplement three months before conception and up to the first 12 weeks of pregnancy. Your baby’s spine starts to develop very soon after you conceive so, if possible, it’s best to start taking folic acid as soon as you stop using contraception.

Talk to your GP if:

  • you have had a baby with a neural tube defect before
  • you or your partner has a neural tube defect
  • you are on anti-epilepsy drugs
  • you have coeliac disease, diabetes, small bowel disease, short bowel syndrome, sickle cell disease or thalassaemia.

You may need to take a higher dose of folic acid daily.

Can I get folic acid from food?

The natural form of folic acid is called folates. Folates are found in lots of different foods, including green leafy vegetables, beans, chickpeas, lentils and yeast extract. Some foods, such as bread and cereals, are fortified with folic acid – just check the packaging.

It’s important to eat a varied diet that includes plenty of folates while you’re expecting. This will help your baby gets all the nutrients he needs to grow and develop. However, it’s impossible to get enough folates from food alone to protect your baby from neural tube defects. That’s why doctors recommend taking a supplement.

Liver is high in folic acid, but it’s not safe to eat in pregnancy as it also contains high levels of the retinol type of vitamin A, which could harm your unborn baby.

What if it’s too late to take folic acid?

Try not to worry too much. The risk of your baby having a neural tube defect is quite small, even if you haven’t taken folic acid. Do talk to your midwife or GP if you are concerned.

Where can I get folic acid supplements from?

You’ll find them in chemists, health food shops and big supermarkets. You can also get them on prescription from your GP.

Ask your GP or pharmacist for advice if you are unsure.