About 3,000 babies are born every year in the U.S. with either anencephaly or spina bifida; these are serious birth defects (also known as neural tube defects) in which the baby’s skull and spine do not completely close during prenatal development. If a woman takes folic acid, a B vitamin, before and during pregnancy, she can reduce the incidence of her infant being born with one of these defects by 50-70%.
One thousand more infants per year are now born healthy since a national campaign began in 1998 to encourage women capable of becoming pregnant to take 400 micrograms of folic acid daily to prevent these defects. Women should begin taking folic acid at least one month before conceiving and continue throughout pregnancy. The recommended daily amount of folic acid (400 micrograms) can be obtained by either taking a multi-vitamin daily (most will have 100% of the daily value of folic acid, check the label) or eating one bowl of fortified cereal every day. Such cereals include Raisin Bran, All-Bran, Special K, Quaker Oatmeal, and many others (again, read the labels to ensure the product provides 100% of the daily value of folic acid). Folic acid is also found in orange juice, peas, broccoli, lentils, asparagus, and spinach.
The annual costs for medical and surgical care for people with spina bifida is more than $200 million. Lifetime care for a single child born with this condition is estimated to be $560,000.
One of the chapters in FOR THE LOVE OF BABIES is about a mother who gives birth to a baby with anencephaly; in this story, the importance of taking preventive folic acid is reiterated. You can also read more about the importance of folic acid during pregnancy on the CDC's website here.