We already know the importance of Folic Acid in pregnancy; the B vitamin has been shown to reduce certain neural tube birth defects, including Spina Bifida. Women are told to start taking supplements even before they start trying to conceive to ensure that levels are high enough during the crucial early weeks of spinal cord development. But a supplementation program designed to offset the limited diets of women in Nepal has shown that folic acid can give babies other advantages as well, when it’s combined with iron supplementation to combat iron-deficiency anemia.
Iron deficiency is incredibly common in developing countries: about every other pregnant woman and 40 percent of school children are affected. But anemia is pretty common among American pregnant women too. “We see this issue even in the U.S.,” says Laura Murray-Kolb, one of the study’s researchers, from Johns Hopkins University, “Most women here are not entering pregnancy with the level of deficiency of women in Nepal, but previous studies have shown that as many as 30 percent of women in the U.S. are anemic by the end of pregnancy.” “Women are getting the message about prenatals,” Murray-Kolb says, “but they tend to become more lax about it as pregnancy progresses.” Iron supplements can be rough on the digestion, so even when doctors recommend them, women don’t always have an easy time keeping up with their dosage.
So it’s totally possible that American babies may be missing out on this important nutrient and the neural development it facilitates.
The Nepalese study was facilitated by U.S. researchers, and followed 676 mother-child pairs from birth to school age. It was determined that the children of mothers who were given both iron supplements and folic acid supplements were smarter, more organized, and had better motor skills than the babies whose moms were not supplemented.
“What we showed is prenatal iron and folic acid supplementation had a significant impact on the offspring’s intellectual level and motor ability and ability during school age, which was a very exciting finding,” said Parul Christian, an expert in international health at Johns Hopkins and another study leader. “It had an impact across a range of function, including intellectual function, executive function and fine motor function,” factors that could affect a child’s later academic success.”
Hmm. Maybe good to try to keep choking those prenatals down after all?
Read more about the study here.
photo: Jeffrey Beall/flickr