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Spina Bifida: A Serious Birth Defect often Easily Prevented

separator Spina bifida is a birth defect that involves incomplete development of the brain, the spinal cord and their protective coverings. It’s caused when the fetus’s spine doesn’t close properly during the very first month of pregnancy. It’s one of the most common birth defects in the United States.

There are three types of spina bifida:

Myelomeningocele: The most severe, in which the spinal cord protrudes from an opening in the spine. This can often be corrected with surgery, but babies who have this condition usually have some kind of permanent leg paralysis and difficulty controlling their bladder and bowels.

Meningocele: This is the rarest form. A cyst containing membranes surrounded by spinal fluid shows through the open part of the spine. This can often be removed with surgery, and the baby’s development is usually normal.

Occulta: This is the mildest form. One or more of the baby’s vertebrae are poorly formed. This usually causes no symptoms.

Can you reduce the risk that your baby will have spina bifida?
As a general rule, women who are pregnant, or thinking about having a baby, should be sure to get plenty of folic acid—800 micrograms per day. Studies show that folic acid significantly reduces the risk of spina bifida.

But folic acid supplements should be started before pregnancy begins, because spina bifida develops in the first month of pregnancy, before many women are even aware they are pregnant. You can get folic acid in your diet by eating these foods:

  • Dark green leafy vegetables each day (of these, spinach has the highest amount of folic acid)
  • Dried beans, and especially lentils (add them to tacos, rice, salads; add beans instead of meat to chili)
  • Fortified cereals and pastas

American Dietetic Association; March of Dimes
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