Folic acid is a vitamin (B9). It is found in certain foods and it can also be taken as tablets.
If you’re planning to have a baby, it’s important that you take folic acid tablets for two to three months before you conceive. This allows it to build up in your body to a level that gives the most protection to your future baby against neural tube defects, such as spina bifida.
As you could get pregnant within a month of trying, it is ideal to start taking folic acid tablets two months before you stop contraception. If you have already stopped contraception, that’s OK, start taking it now and until week 12 of pregnancy.
You can also try to eat more foods that contain folate, which is the natural form of folic acid. However, even a healthy diet does not have enough folic acid for pregnancy so taking folic acid tablets is very important.
If you end up taking folic acid tablets for far longer than two to three months this is perfectly OK and not harmful.
Why should I take folic acid?
If you have the right level of folic acid in your body before you get pregnant, it reduces the risk of the baby developing neural tube defects by up to 70%. Neural tube defects are problems with the brain or spinal cord, including spina bifida.
Spina bifida is not common but it can cause a wide range of problems for the baby, including:
- problems with movement
- bladder and bowel problems
- learning difficulties.
How much folic acid should I take?
Most women are advised to take a 400mcg supplement every day. You can get these from most pharmacies, supermarkets, and health food shops. Your GP may also be able to prescribe them to you.
You can also get folic acid in some pregnancy multivitamin tablets. If you do, make sure the tablet does not contain vitamin A. High doses of vitamin A can cause developmental problems in the first three months of pregnancy.
You can also try to eat foods that contain folate. These include:
- brussels sprouts
- fortified breakfast cereals.
Eating foods high in folate alone will not be enough to give the best protection to the baby so it is important to take the tablet too.
Some people need a higher dose of folic acid
If you have a higher risk of having a pregnancy affected by neural tube defects you will be advised to take a higher dose of 5mg folic acid.
You may have a higher risk if:
- you have diabetes
- you or your partner have a neural tube defect
- you have had a previous pregnancy affected by a neural tube defect
- you or your partner have a family history of neural tube defects
- you have epilepsy
- you are a heavy drinker.
To get a higher dose talk to your doctor because 5mg tablets aren’t available without a prescription.
Where do I get folic acid?
Folic acid can be found in lots of branded pre-pregnancy vitamins. These are not harmful but can sometimes be expensive. It is often cheaper to buy folic acid separately rather than buying expensive branded supplements.
Do not take vitamin A supplements or any supplements containing vitamin A, such as liver or fish oil. High doses of Vitamin A can cause developmental problems in the first three months of pregnancy.
If you receive certain benefits or are under 18 you may be eligible for free vitamins when you become pregnant.
Healthy Start is a UK-wide scheme that provides free vitamins, including folic acid. You also get free weekly vouchers for milk, plain fresh and frozen fruit and vegetables and infant formula milk.
You qualify if you are on benefits and:
- you are at least 10 weeks pregnant
- have children under the age of four
All pregnant women under the age of 18 qualify – whether they are on benefits or not.
To find out more and apply visit Healthy Start or call 0345 607 6823
I think I’m already pregnant but haven’t been taking folic acid. What do I do?
Don’t worry, the risk of problems is small. Start taking folic acid now and until week 12 if you have not reached it yet. You don’t need to take after 12 weeks folic acid (though it is not harmful) as the neural tube will have fully developed. You can talk to your GP or midwife if you have any concerns.
I’ve been trying to get pregnant but haven’t been taking folic acid supplements. Should I stop trying to conceive?
Ideally, you should take folic acid supplements for two to three months before you conceive and until you are 12 weeks pregnant.
But try not to worry if you haven’t started taking the supplements yet and start taking it now. You can talk to your GP or midwife if you have any concerns.