Vitamin B9 (Folate or Folic Acid)

Folate is a B vitamin that is needed for the formation of blood cells and nerve tissue. It is found naturally in food, especially green vegetables and grains. Folic acid is the synthetic form of folate which may be added to manufactured foods or taken as a vitamin supplement.

Requirements for folate and folic acid increase during pregnancy and breastfeeding. Women who don’t get enough folate and folic acid before and during pregnancy have a higher risk of their baby developing abnormalities known as neural tube defects (NTDs). The neural tube is the nerve centre of the foetus and grows into the spinal cord. The most common NTDs are spina bifida and anencephaly. 

  • Take a folic acid tablet (0.8 mg) daily for four weeks (one month) before you might become pregnant through to 12 weeks (three months) after actually becoming pregnant.
  • If you find out you are pregnant and haven’t been taking a folic acid tablet, start taking tablets straight away and continue until the 12th week of your pregnancy. This recommended registered tablet can be purchased at pharmacies (or at a lower cost, when prescribed by your doctor or midwife).
  • A higher dose folic acid tablet is also available for women with a higher risk of NTD pregnancy. Talk to your doctor or midwife about which folic acid tablet is best for you.
  • Choose foods naturally high in folate or fortified with folic acid, such as:
    • well-washed, fresh, raw or lightly cooked vegetables
    • raw fruit, well-washed or peeled (citrus is especially high in folate)
    • bread and cereals, especially wholegrain
    • cooked dried beans and peas
    • yeast extracts
    • freshly cooked liver and kidney (no more than one serving a week)
    • folic acid-fortifi ed breakfast cereals, bread or fruit juice.

Bread manufacturers have voluntarily started increasing the range of breads that have added folic acid. Click here for list of folic acid fortified breads.  Also note that  while the folic acid that is added to bread boosts the dietary intake of the nutrient, it is not enough to substitute the recommended folic acid supplement. The over-the-counter supplement should still be taken four weeks prior to conception and for the first 12 weeks of pregnancy.