Everyone knows eating lots of fruits and vegetables is healthy, especially if you’re trying to conceive. They help you get enough vitamins for the demands of pregnancy.
However, even with a healthy diet, you should ask your doctor to prescribe supplemental prenatal vitamins that contain, among other nutrients, folic acid, one of the B vitamins. Taking folic acid, especially during early fetal development, can prevent a wide range of birth defects of the brain and spinal cord, called neural tube defects. Because neural tube development occurs in the first days to weeks of pregnancy (sometimes even before a woman realizes that she is pregnant), you should start taking the 400 milligrams of supplemental folic acid-- the recommended value from the U.S. Public Health and Service and The Center for Disease Control (CDC)--before you start trying to conceive. This cannot be overemphasized, as many women start their folic acid and prenatal vitamins after they miss their period, which may not give your body enough time to build up the required amounts of the vitamins in time for neural tube development!
The most common birth defect of the neural tube is spinal bifida, where the bones covering the spinal cord do not fuse properly, leaving the spinal cord exposed. Several other types of neural tube defects prevent the skull bones from properly enclosing the brain, causing significant health problems and often death.
Preconception counseling with your doctor is a fantastic opportunity to discuss your folic acid and vitamin needs in the preconception and prenatal period. If you or your partner have a known family history of neural tube defects or congenital heart defects, it’s especially important to have this discussion before trying to conceive, as your doctor may recommend a higher dose of folic acid (but not other vitamins) for families with certain known birth defects.
You can ask your doctor to prescribe prenatal vitamins for you, or you can buy a daily vitamin over the counter that contains extra folic acid. Just make sure the vitamins are labeled as prenatal vitamins (see below), and provide the recommended dose of 400 micrograms of folic acid. In addition, many breakfast cereals contain folic acid. The CDC lists breakfast cereals with at least 400 micrograms of added folic acid per serving and provides other information about folic acid.
Remember, too much of a good thing can be bad. Do not take megadoses of any vitamin without speaking with your doctor. Healthy fetal development requires just the right amount, and high doses of certain vitamins can cause birth defects. For example, some regular adult vitamins contain vitamin A at amounts of 10,000 IU, which when combined with the amount you get from your diet, may actually increase your risk of birth defects. Prenatal vitamins are formulated to contain a maximum of 4,000 to 5,000 IU of vitamin A to ensure safety.
Also, be aware that retinoic acid, found in some acne medications and cosmetics, can be harmful. Ask your pharmacist about any possible hidden retinoic acid in cosmetics or skin and beauty products when you purchase them from the drug store. After all, changing your makeup and eating the right vitamins while you’re trying to conceive are a small price to pay for a healthy baby!