Folic acid can reduce your risk of having a baby with a serious birth defect of the brain and spinal cord, called the neural tube. A baby with spina bifida, the most common neural tube defect, is born with a spine that is not closed. The exposed nerves are damaged, leaving the child with varying degrees of paralysis, incontinence, and sometimes mental retardation.
Neural tube defects develop in the first 28 days after conception, before many women realize they are pregnant. Because about half of all pregnancies are unplanned, the Department of Health recommends that you take 400 micrograms of folic acid each day while you are trying to conceive, and should continue taking this dose for the first 12 weeks of pregnancy. A woman who has had a prior child with a neural tube defect should discuss the appropriate dose of folic acid with her doctor before her next pregnancy. Studies have shown that taking a larger dose (up to 4,000 micrograms) at least one month before and during the first trimester may be beneficial.
There are natural sources of folic acid: green leafy vegetables, nuts, beans, and citrus fruits. It is also found in many fortified breakfast cereals and some vitamin supplements.
Calcium during pregnancy can prevent a new mother from losing her own bone density, as the fetus uses the mineral for bone growth.
Iron helps both the mother and baby's blood carry oxygen.
While a daily vitamin supplement is no substitute for a healthy diet, most women need supplements to make sure they get adequate levels of these minerals.
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