The March of Dimes, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the Institute of Medicine recommend that all women consume at least 400 micrograms of folic acid a day, and that pregnant women consume at least 600 micrograms. Getting enough of this important nutrient is essential for preventing birth defects that affect your baby's developing brain, spinal cord, and other organs.
The natural form of folic acid, called folate, is found in many different kinds of foods, as well as in most fortified grains and cereals. But since most women don't eat enough of these foods regularly to get all the folic acid they need -- and because the body absorbs folic acid better from vitamins than from food -- you should take a prenatal vitamin that contains folic acid every day while you're trying to get pregnant and during pregnancy. (Most prenatal vitamins contain 800 to 1,000 micrograms per tablet, so you're definitely getting enough.)
Of course, it's always a good idea to eat plenty of folate-rich foods, which also contain many other important vitamins, minerals, and nutrients. These include:
• Leafy green vegetables
• Oranges and orange juice
• Lima beans
• Sunflower seeds
• Wheat germ
If you've already had a baby with a certain birth defects, ask your doctor about how much folic acid you should take before your next pregnancy. Studies have shown that taking a larger dose (4 milligrams) beginning at least one month before pregnancy and during the first trimester reduces the risk of having another affected pregnancy by about 70 percent.