Thirty years ago, it was suggested that maternal intake of certain vitamins during pregnancy affected the incidence of serious fetal malformations. Subsequent research has revealed that folate (folic acid), a B vitamin, plays a crucial role in the development of the central nervous system during the early weeks of gestation, which is generally before the pregnancy is confirmed. In a significant number of embryos, an inadequate supply of folate at this time leads to a failure of the primitive neural tube to close and differentiate normally and results in neural tube birth defects (NTD). Numerous studies have confirmed the importance of an adequate intake of folate during the weeks just before and after conception. Overall, the data predict that if women consume multivitamin supplements containing folic acid during the periconceptional period, the number of children born with serious malformations (such as spina bifida and anencephaly) could be reduced by half. Although programs to increase dietary folate intake of potential mothers may be effective in reducing NTD, the only proven and practical preventive measure currently available is to take oral multivitamin supplements containing folic acid. Multivitamin supplementation has also been associated with reduced incidence of other congenital malformations. Current research is focusing on the role of micronutrients in embryogenesis, and on methods to identify prospective mothers at increased risk for bearing a child with NTD or with other major malformations shown to occur at reduced frequency with multivitamin supplementation. Of equal importance is the development of methods to communicate current knowledge as a public health measure.