Family Life

Pregnancy superhero: Study ties mother’s folic acid intake to lower autism risk for baby

Did you know that folic acid is a pregnancy superhero?

It has been widely known that taking folic acid daily — before and during pregnancy — can help prevent birth defects ( in your baby’s brain and spinal cord.

But now, new findings just published in the Journal of the American Medical Association reveal that women taking multivitamins with folic acid before and during pregnancy may also lower their babies’ risk of autism.

So what is folic acid, and how much should you take?

Folic acid is a man-made form of the B vitamin folate, which plays an important role in the production of red blood cells ( Folate is found naturally in dark green vegetables and citrus fruits. And the best food sources of folic acid, surprisingly, are fortified cereals.

Dr. Mary Jane Minkin — clinical professor of obstetrics, gynecology, and reproductive sciences at Yale University School of Medicine — recommends that women take at least 400 micrograms of folic acid daily, and to start taking that amount at least a month before trying to conceive. Folic acid supplementation is available in drug stores without a prescription.

And if your doctor hasn’t reminded you to take a prenatal vitamin with folic acid before getting pregnant, you may wish to discuss that during your next visit. According to one study, women who took folic acid for at least a year before conceiving cut their chances of delivering early by 50 percent or more.

Keep in mind that it’s important to have folate in your system during the early stages of your pregnancy, too, when your baby’s brain and spinal cord are developing, since birth defects occur within the first three to four weeks of pregnancy.

But the big news is this newest study, which showed a significant decrease in children diagnosed with autism when their moms had been taking folic acid.

“We don’t know much about mechanism of action, or are there other correlates at play? But the data definitely showed a decrease,” Dr. Minkin points out.

“My take on folic acid is that anyone who is trying to conceive should be taking folic acid. We have known for about 25 years that women who conceive while taking folic acid supplementation definitely decrease their risks of having a baby with a neural tube defect, which should be enough to have every woman take it, no matter what other good things it does.”

She added: “There has also been some evidence over the years on benefits of decreasing cardiac defects, as well. And I always recommend any woman who is sexually active and not using contraception to take folic acid, because we know that almost half of the pregnancies in the U.S. are unplanned. So if there is any chance of pregnancy, do be on folic acid.”

A prescription vitamin such as OB Complete ( has many good components, as well as having 1,000 micrograms of folic acid. It also has 1200 IUs of vitamin D3, calcium, iron, and essential fatty acids, all of which have been shown in some studies to enhance pregnancy outcome, according to Dr. Minkin, who says, “What amazes me is that a recent study by the March of Dimes ( showed that only about a third of women trying to conceive were actually taking folic acid. It’s so easy to be taking a vitamin which we know works, so why not take it?”

Eliminate any ‘vices’

We all strive to maintain a healthy lifestyle, but staying on track is even more important during pregnancy and while trying to conceive. So, eliminating bad habits like smoking, drinking, and taking drugs (except those okayed by your doctor), should be a no-brainer. And eating right does make a difference.

“It is ideal to be as close to your ideal body weight as possible, both for a good pregnancy, but also for maximizing conception. And I strongly encourage a woman who is thinking about pregnancy to meet with her prospective OB provider in advance,” advises Dr. Minkin. “For example, women with certain medical conditions, such as hypertension or epilepsy, should avoid certain medications — and it’s good to be off of these medications and switched to more favorable ones in advance of the pregnancy.”

She adds: “I do teach my medical students to recommend folic acid to all women thinking about pregnancy; it is one of those things that has been shown to help prevent certain devastating conditions, and may well be helpful in many others, so why not take it?”

Dr. Minkin, who is a parent of two children, says she took prenatal vitamins during both pregnancies.

Other benefits of folic acid

Did you know that some older women may benefit from taking folic acid, as well? According to Dr. Minkin, women who have a variant of certain genes known as methylenetetrahydrofolate reductase may benefit from folic acid supplementation. They should be checking in with their primary care physicians to see if they think this would be of benefit.

“Certainly, almost all women would benefit from taking at least 1,000 IUs of vitamin D daily. This is a vitamin that has bone benefits, and studies have also shown it may be beneficial for heart and brain health as well,” she notes.

Dr. Minkin, who is a leader in women’s health education both inside and outside the medical community, has offices in Connecticut (New Haven, Guilford, and Essex) and lives outside of New Haven.

Her website,, is focused on menopause education, but also has lots of video clips of her talking about many other issues, including cancer (one of her special interests is dealing with menopausal issues in cancer survivors), fertility, infertility, and other medical issues.

A wise woman once said that pregnancy is about hope and the future — and, of course, a new, healthy baby. In many ways, pregnancy, like life, is what we make it. And, with nature’s assistance, it’s up to moms-to-be to help make their babies’ experience inside the womb as safe and nourishing as possible.

To read more about folic acid and autism, visit:

Tammy Scileppi is a Queens-based freelance journalist, parent, and regular contributor to New York Parenting.

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