There is no known cause of spina bifida, but doctors suspect it results from a combination of genetic and environmental risk factors. Among those risk factors:
- A family history of neural tube defects in either the mother or the baby’s siblings.
- A deficiency in folate, also known as vitamin B-9: Folate can be found in foods such as leafy greens, beans, citrus fruits and eggs. The synthetic form, called folic acid, can be found in supplements and fortified foods.
- Some medications: The anti-seizure medicine valproic acid (Depakene) is thought to increase the risk of spina bifida because it interferes with the body’s ability to use folate and folic acid.
- Diabetes: Uncontrolled blood sugar in the mother can increase the risk of spina bifida in an unborn baby.
- Obesity: If a woman is significantly overweight before becoming pregnant, she faces an increased risk of neural tube birth defects, including spina bifida.
- Elevated body temperature: When a woman’s core body temperature increases from factors such as fever or the use of a hot tub or sauna during the first month of pregnancy, it may increase the risk of spina bifida.
Because spina bifida and other neural tube defects occur in the first few weeks of pregnancy, it is critical for expectant mothers to have enough folic acid in their systems at the time of conception. That’s why doctors recommend all women of childbearing age take a supplement of 400 micrograms of folic acid every day. It is difficult to meet the suggested daily amount of folic acid through food alone, but eating a diet rich in folate is important.