Author: Dr. Pamela Simmons, MD, Maternal Fetal Medicine
“Why should I take my prenatal vitamin every day?” This question gets asked by pregnant women all the time. Aside from the prenatal vitamin being rich in vitamins and minerals, the thing that makes a prenatal vitamin special is that it also has folic acid. Folic Acid is important in preventing neural tube birth defects.
A neural tube defect is a major birth defect that can affect that baby’s brain or spine, such as Spina Bifida and Anencephaly. These abnormalities can be present in approximately 2 out of 1,000 pregnancies. Approximately half of these birth defects can be prevented with daily intake of 400 micrograms of folic acid starting 1 to 3 months prior to becoming pregnant – that is the same amount of folic acid that is found in your prenatal vitamin. (Take your vitamin girl!)
Folic acid is also found in many of the foods we eat, such as breads, cereals, pasta, flour, rice and other grain products. Since 1998 the United States government has required these foods be fortified with folic acid. While many cereals contain 100% the daily amount of folic acid in just one serving, it’s important to supplement with folic acid and a prenatal vitamin prior to becoming pregnant.
As physicians, we recommend all women ages 15 – 45 to take a daily prenatal vitamin because most women, that are not intentionally trying to get pregnant, do not find out that they are pregnant for usually one to three months after their last menstrual cycle. By this time, the birth defect can already be present and cannot be prevented. If you are thinking of becoming pregnant it is a good idea to start taking a prenatal vitamin and meet with your OB-GYN to discuss your health.
It’s important to note that there are some women who need more folic acid than what is found in the prenatal vitamin. Examples of these women include patients with a previous pregnancy affected with neural tube defect, or if the woman herself is affected. Also, patients who are obese, have diabetes mellitus type 1, sickle cell disease and patients who are on certain anti-seizure medications. This is yet another reason why it is important to speak with your doctor about folic acid supplementation prior to becoming pregnant.