Can a simple B vitamin like folic acid really prevent serious birth defects? The answer is a resounding yes, but taking the vitamin in the easiest days and weeks of pregnancy is key.

When women find out they are pregnant, staying healthy often becomes a top priority. Making sure they are eating nutritious foods, getting enough rest, remaining active, and generally taking care of themselves comes to the forefront. But one of the most critical times for preventing certain birth defects is before a woman even knows she is pregnant.

Sufficient intake of folic acid (folate) can prevent serious birth defects, so January 7 to 13 marks Folic Acid Awareness Week. The observation offers a timely opportunity for nurses to become aware of their own folic acid intake and to open up discussions with their female patients of child-bearing age.

According to the National Birth Defects Prevention Network (NBDPN), sufficient folic acid intake before pregnancy occurs can “prevent up to 70% of some serious birth defects of the brain and spine, called neural tube defects.” Specifically, the vitamin has protective benefits against spina bifida and anencephaly, which begin to develop in the early weeks of pregnancy, often long before a woman even realizes she is pregnant.

Because approximately half of all pregnancies in the United States are unplanned, raising awareness about the protective benefits of sufficient folic acid intake before a pregnancy happens is essential. Luckily, getting the recommended 400 mcg of folic acid is as easy as taking a daily multivitamin or eating fortified pasta, rice, breads, or cereals (at mealtime or as a snack). Often, one small bowl of a fortified cereal can supply the minimum amount for the whole day.

Women who prefer to get enough folic acid from unfortified sources can turn to dark leafy greens, some juices, and many beans. But they need to be aware of the amounts they need to consume to meet the minimum requirement. According to the National Institutes of Health, these non-fortified foods are top sources of folate: beef liver, boiled spinach, black-eyed peas, asparagus, Brussels sprouts, and romaine lettuce.

According to the NBDPN, babies born to Hispanic women have the highest rates of these birth defects and that, in general, Hispanic women consume less folic acid overall and are less aware of the protective benefits of the vitamin during pregnancy.

For nurses, using Folic Acid Awareness Week to open up a conversation and give patients some easy-to-follow information for preventing these birth defects is worthwhile.

Julia Quinn-Szcesuil

Julia Quinn-Szcesuil

Julia Quinn-Szcesuil is a freelance writer based in Bolton, Massachusetts.
Julia Quinn-Szcesuil

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