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What are neural tube defects?

Neural tube defects occur when the brain or spinal cord does not form properly.  The neural tube starts off flat during early development of the baby.  In the first trimester of the pregnancy, the neural tube should fold together to create a ‘tube’.  If this process is incomplete (complete closure of the tube does not occur), it is termed an open neural tube defect.An open neural tube defect involving the spinal cord is called spina bifida. Spina bifida causes physical disabilities such as difficulty walking, and controlling the bladder and/or bowel. People with spina bifida may also have mental disabilities. Treatment can help with many of the physical disabilities.

An open neural tube defect involving the brain is called anencephaly. A baby with anencephaly will be stillborn or die shortly after birth.

In Canada, the chance of having a baby with an open neural tube defect is about 1 out of every 2000 births. The chance of a child being born with this condition does NOT increase with the mother’s age.

Studies have shown that women who take folic acid ~3 months prior to conception and continue to use it throughout the first trimester of their pregnancy can lower their chance of having a baby with an open neural tube defect.  As well, the following foods are good sources of folic acid: fortified grains, spinach, lentils, chick peas, asparagus, broccoli, peas, Brussels sprouts, corn, and oranges. However, it is unlikely that diet alone can provide levels similar to folic acid supplementation.  If you are planning a pregnancy or are in early pregnancy, speak to your health care provider regarding folic acid supplementation.