Folic acid (or folate) is important for the development of your baby in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy. It plays an important role in formation of the nervous system. If folic acid is deficient during this early part of the pregnancy there is an increased risk of abnormalities of the neural tube (these abnormalities are spina bifida and a more serious abnormality known as anencephaly where the upper part of the brain and skull do not form properly).
It is recommended that all women who are considering pregnancy take a folic acid supplement of 0.4mg/day. If you have diabetes or epilepsy or if you have had a previous baby with a neural tube abnormality it is recommended that you take 5mg/day. It is best to start this before you are pregnant and there is usually no need to continue with folic acid supplements beyond 12 weeks gestation.
A number of breakfast cereals are fortified with additional folic acid however you may not know that since September 2009 Australian millers have been required to add folic acid to wheat flour used for bread making. This means that 3 slices of bread will give you the equivalent of 0.2mg of folic acid (half the daily pregnancy requirement)!
A recent study published in the Medical Journal of Australia has shown that since the fortification of bread occurred there has been a significant decrease in the number of women in Australia of child bearing age who are deficient in folic acid. This will ultimately mean less babies with these potentially severe abnormalities. A simple but effective strategy.