Need to talk? Call 1800 882 436.
It's a free call with a maternal child health nurse. *call charges may apply from your mobile

Is it an emergency? Dial 000
If you need urgent medical help, call triple zero immediately.

beginning of content

Folate and pregnancy

5-minute read

What is folate and folic acid?

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 leafy green vegetables, fruits and legumes. ‘Folic acid’ is the synthetic form of folate and is added to food, such as bread and breakfast cereals, or used in dietary supplements.

Why is folate important for pregnancy?

Folate and folic acid are important for pregnancy because they can help prevent birth defects known as 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.

Which foods contain folate?

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, oranges, berries, bananas)
  • legumes (chickpeas, soya beans, lima beans, red kidney beans, lentils, haricot beans)
  • eggs
  • nuts
  • juices (many apple and orange juices)
  • Vegemite

In Australia, all flour used for making bread (except organic bread), rolls, bagels, English muffins and flat breads made with yeast must contain folic acid. It can also be found in some breakfast cereals.

Three slices of bread (100g) contains an average of 120 micrograms of folic acid.

You can check the food label of any bread product made in Australia to check if it contains folic acid (sometimes listed as folate) in the ingredients.

When should I start taking folic acid supplements?

Folic acid supplements are available in Australia over the counter from pharmacies and supermarkets, 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. Although many multivitamins targeted at pregnant women may contain folic acid, it’s important to check you are getting the recommended dose.

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.

How will I know if I need a high dose of 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.

Who can I talk to for more information and advice?

Speak to your doctor if you are planning a pregnancy or if you think you might be pregnant.

Speak to a maternal child health nurse

Call Pregnancy, Birth and Baby to speak to a maternal child health nurse on 1800 882 436 or video call. Available 7am to midnight (AET), 7 days a week.

Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.

Last reviewed: June 2021

Back To Top

Need more information?

Folate and pregnancy

Taking the vitamin folate before and during pregnancy reduces the risk of your baby having a neural tube defect

Read more on WA Health website

Why do you need to take folic acid when pregnant? | Queensland Health

Learn about why folic acid is important in pregnancy.

Read more on Queensland Health website

Folate | Jean Hailes

Folate is a B vitamin needed for healthy growing, in particular for the nervous system. Folate helps: form red blood cells which carry oxygen around the…

Read more on Jean Hailes for Women's Health website

Vitamins and supplements during pregnancy

Supplements such as folic acid and iodine are recommended during pregnancy. But check with your doctor before taking any other types.

Read more on Pregnancy, Birth & Baby website

Vitamin B12 and folate - Pathology Tests Explained

Why and when to get tested for vitamin B12 and folate

Read more on Pathology Tests Explained website

Vitamin and mineral (micronutrient) supplements

Here is what you need to know about the benefits for fertility and pregnancy health of folic acid, iodine, vitamin D, zinc, and selenium supplements.

Read more on Your Fertility website

Planning for your pregnancy

If you are thinking about pregnancy, visit your doctor for a preconception consult to provide you with expert advice on planning your pregnancy.

Read more on Pregnancy, Birth & Baby website

Planning for pregnancy

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

Read more on Pregnancy, Birth & Baby website

What supplements should I take during pregnancy? | Queensland Health

Find out what supplements and vitamins you need to take when trying to get pregnant, during pregnancy, after pregnancy and while breastfeeding.

Read more on Queensland Health website

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.

Read more on Pregnancy, Birth & Baby website

Call us and speak to a Maternal Child Health Nurse for personal advice and guidance.

Need further advice or guidance from our maternal child health nurses?

Healthdirect Australia acknowledges the Traditional Owners of Country throughout Australia and their continuing connection to land, sea and community. We pay our respects to the Traditional Owners and to Elders both past and present.

This information is for your general information and use only and is not intended to be used as medical advice and should not be used to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any medical condition, nor should it be used for therapeutic purposes.

The information is not a substitute for independent professional advice and should not be used as an alternative to professional health care. If you have a particular medical problem, please consult a healthcare professional.

Except as permitted under the Copyright Act 1968, this publication or any part of it may not be reproduced, altered, adapted, stored and/or distributed in any form or by any means without the prior written permission of Healthdirect Australia.