You may have heard that it is important to take a folic acid supplement during pregnancy, but you may not be aware of the reasons why. It is recommended that you take folic acid (400 micrograms) every day while trying to get pregnant, and then continue taking it for the first twelve weeks of pregnancy. If the pregnancy was unexpected, and you were not taking folic acid beforehand, then you should begin as soon as you discover that you are pregnant.
- In addition to taking folic acid tablets, you should also be eating foods that contain high levels of the substance, such as brown rice and leafy green vegetables. Some breakfast cereals also have folic acid added to them, and you may want to consider eating these on a regular basis.
- Folic acid helps to prevent birth defects, specifically those known as neural tube defects. These include the condition spina bifida.
- You are at higher risk of having a child affected by spina bifida if either you or the child’s father has the condition, a previous child has been affected, or if there is a family history of neural tube defects. Diabetes can also increase the risk of spina bifida and other neural tube defects. If you need to take medications for epilepsy, then you should speak to your doctor or midwife, as a higher dose of folic acid will be advisable during your pregnancy.
What is spina bifida?
Spina bifida is a congenital disorder, and occurs when the vertebrae of the spine are not fully formed. If the gap between the bone sections is large enough, then the spinal cord may protrude through the bones. Sometimes, a fluid-filled sac surrounds the spinal cord.
The protrusion of the spinal cord is generally in the lower (lumbar or sacral) regions of the back. It can be surgically closed after birth, but this does not restore the normal functions to the damaged regions of the spinal cord; it is simply a cosmetic improvement.
It is currently thought that taking folic acid supplements during pregnancy can reduce the incidence of spina bifida by up to 70%.
It is now possible to screen for spina bifida before birth. A detailed ultrasound scan or a test of the mother’s blood will give an initial indication, and this can be confirmed using amniocentesis.
What impact will spina bifida have on my child?
- As the spinal cord is damaged, this can result in weakness or paralysis of the lower body, with associated problems such as the loss of bladder or bowel control.
- Some children with spina bifida have learning difficulties, particularly associated with reading and mathematics. This can be a result of memory problems. Writing may also present problems, due to a lack of fine motor control.
- Children with spina bifida may also experience social difficulties, meaning that they will make fewer friends and spend less time with them. This may also last into adulthood.
Prevention of spina bifida
The most important way in which you can try to reduce the risk of your child developing spina bifida is to ensure that you take folic acid supplements. This is particularly important during the early stages of your pregnancy.