If you plan to get pregnant in the coming months, it’s important to take good care of yourself for the best chance of conceiving a healthy baby. This means quitting smoking, maintaining a healthy weight, getting a well checkup and a dental exam and eating a healthy diet. Making sure you’re getting enough folic acid in your diet can also help you ensure a successful pregnancy.

“Folic acid, or folate, is a B vitamin that helps your body grow new cells and prevent two neural tube birth defects — spina bifida, which affects spinal cord development, and anencephaly, which affects brain growth,” said Jason Cruff, D.O., an obstetrician/gynecologist at Geisinger Wyoming Valley Medical Center in Wilkes-Barre.

Babies born with spina bifida may be severely disabled. Babies born with anencephaly typically die before birth or shortly after.

These birth defects are common and serious, but getting enough folic acid can prevent them by 50 to 70 percent.

Taking folic acid before and during pregnancy may also help to prevent early labor, a cleft lip and palate, and low birth weight. Researchers believe folic acid may also play a part in heart health and preventing cell changes that can lead to cancer.

Folic occurs naturally in some foods, especially dark green, leafy vegetables, some nuts, beans, poultry and dairy products, while others are fortified with it. Some of these foods include:

  • Spinach

  • Liver

  • Lentils

  • Black-eyed peas

  • White rice

  • Asparagus

  • Brussels sprouts

  • Romaine lettuce

  • Avocado

  • Broccoli

  • Mustard greens

  • Kidney beans

  • Great Northern beans

  • Green peas

  • Breakfast cereals

However, most women do not get the recommended 400 micrograms (.4 milligrams) of folic acid through diet alone. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that women between the ages of 15 and 45 also take a folic acid supplement to ensure they’re getting the recommended value every day even if they’re not trying to get pregnant.

“Birth defects that can be prevented by taking folic acid occur in the first few weeks of a pregnancy,” said Dr. Cruff. “Many women don’t find out they are pregnant until two to eight weeks in, which is after the critical period for brain and spine development.”

If you are trying to get pregnant and do not already take a supplement or a multivitamin with the recommended amount of folic acid, the CDC recommends taking a folic acid supplement for at least one month before trying to conceive, and then every day during your pregnancy.

In addition, women who have a baby with a brain or spine defect and want to get pregnant again, or women with spina bifida, should take folic acid everyday.

Women who are breastfeeding should also ensure they’re getting enough folic acid — 500 micrograms is recommended; however, you should talk to your doctor.

“Reviewing the types of foods you eat and adding ones rich in folic acid, plus talking to your doctor about supplements are two simple, yet important, steps to take before trying to get pregnant,” said Dr. Cruff.