CBS News This Morning medical correspondent Dr. Emily Senay gave us this report on folic acid.
When she was only a week into her pregnancy, Antonella Brook started doing all she knew how to help ensure that her baby was born healthy.
"After we knew that we were pregnant, we started taking vitamins," says Brook. "Right away from the start."
Lorenzo Ari Brook, born at 7 ½ pounds, did indeed arrive happy and healthy.
Vitamins - especially folic acid - are important for mother and child from the beginning of pregnancy. Dr. Joanne Stone, an obstetrician/gynecologist at New York's Mount Sinai Hospital, says that a lack of folic acid can put the fetus at risk of developing what is called a "neural tube defect."
"A neural tube defect is a spectrum of problems," says Stone. "It can be what's commonly known as spina bifida, where some of the spinal chord is actually exposed. It can be a problem called encephaly, where the baby's actually missing portions of the brain. And, it's a problem very early in the development of the embryo."
Some foods such as orange juice are fortified with folic acid, and others will be soon. Stone believes folic acid should even be a concern of women who are just trying to get pregnant.
"It's very important that women get folic acid from pre-natal vitamins, because it's very hard to actually make sure that you're getting the right amount of folic acid," Stone says. "So, women who are thinking about becoming pregnant should be on pre-natal vitamins."
Taking folic acid before and during pregnancy won't erase the possibility of spinal birth defects. However, it has been shown to reduce the number of cases by up to 50 percent.
With government regulations now requiring the addition of folic acid to breads and pastas, the odds are growing that this important nutrient will reach many more women who might become pregnant.