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Folate and pregnancy

3-minute read

Folate and folic acid are important for pregnancy because they can help prevent birth defects known as neural tube defects, such as spina bifida.

Folate is a B group vitamin needed for healthy growth and development. It is known as ‘folate’ when it is found naturally in food, such as green leafy vegetables, and as ‘folic acid’ when it is added to food, such as bread and breakfast cereals, or used in dietary supplements.

About 1 in 1,000 babies in Australia is born with a neural tube defect such as spina bifida.

Spina bifida is one of the most common birth defects. It occurs in the first weeks of pregnancy, when the brain and spinal cord are forming.

Most cases of neural tube defects can be prevented if you have enough folate before and during early pregnancy.

You can get enough folate by eating folate-rich foods and taking a supplement.

Folic acid supplements

These are available in Australia over the counter from pharmacies and through your doctor at varying doses. Some women need more folate than others. Talk to your doctor about what dose of folic acid is right for you.

Generally, when trying to get pregnant or in the early months of pregnancy, you will need to look for supplements that contain at least 400 micrograms of folic acid. These will generally be supplements that contain only folic acid or special pregnancy supplements. Multi-vitamin supplements don’t normally contain enough folic acid.

The best way to guarantee you get enough folic acid is to take a daily folic acid supplement at least 1 month before and until 3 months after conception. You don’t need to take folic acid supplements after that.

Folate-rich foods

Many foods are naturally rich in folate, but folate dissolves in water and is easily destroyed by cooking. It is best to lightly cook vegetables or eat them raw. Microwave or steam cooking is best.

The following are good sources of natural folate:

  • vegetables (broccoli, brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, English spinach, green beans, lettuce, mushrooms, parsnip, sweet corn, zucchini)
  • fruit (avocado, grapefruit, orange)
  • legumes (chickpeas, soya beans, lima beans, red kidney beans, lentils, haricot beans)
  • eggs
  • nuts
  • juices (many apple and orange juices)

The voluntary fortification of several foods with folate has been permitted in Australia since June 1995. Mandatory folic acid fortification of all flour used for making bread (except organic bread) started in 2009. Three slices of bread (100g) contains an average of 120 micrograms of folic acid.

Higher-dose folic acid

Some women have an increased risk of having a pregnancy affected by a neural tube defect and are advised to take a higher dose (5mg) of folic acid each day until they are 12 weeks pregnant. Women have an increased risk if:

  • they or their partner have a neural tube defect
  • they or their partner have a family history of neural tube defects
  • they have had a previous pregnancy affected by a neural tube defect
  • they have diabetes
  • they have a body mass index (BMI) greater than 30
  • they have a risk of not absorbing nutrients well

In addition, women who are taking anti-epileptic medication should consult their doctor for advice because they may also need to take a higher dose of folic acid.

If any of the above apply to you, talk to your doctor since they can prescribe a higher dose of folic acid. Your doctor or midwife may also recommend additional screening tests during your pregnancy.

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Last reviewed: June 2021

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Need more information?

What is folate and why is it so important in pregnancy?

You’ll need to start taking a daily folic acid supplement if you’re trying for a baby or you've just fallen pregnant. Find out more about folic acid, folate and neural tube defects here.

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Folate for pregnant women - Better Health Channel

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Department of Health | Folate

Folate is the common name for folic acid and related compounds which together make up one of the B group of vitamins necessary for healthy growth and development.

Read more on Department of Health website

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There are a number of things you can do to prepare yourself for pregnancy and also increase your chances of having a healthy pregnancy.

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Neural tube defects

Neural tube defect affects less than one in 1000 pregnancies. There are a number of factors that will increase this risk especially a close family history.

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Preconception health for women

If you want to have a baby, being healthy is one of the best ways to improve your chances of falling pregnant and having a healthy baby.

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Vitamin B12 and folate deficiency is a condition of having insufficient amount of B complex vitamins necessary for red blood cell formation, tissue and cell repair.

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