One of the best ways to have a healthy baby is to take good care of your own health. Folic acid has been shown to help prevent certain birth defects, but now a new study suggests when a woman takes it in the first two months of pregnancy; her child may be less likely to have severe language delays.
Folic acid is a B vitamin (B9) found mostly in leafy green vegetables like kale and spinach, orange juice, and enriched grains. It’s also available as a supplement.
American companies often add folic acid to their grains to help make sure that pregnant women are getting enough of the B vitamin.
“We don’t think people should change their behavior based on these findings,” said Dr. Ezra Susser from Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health in New York, who worked on the study.
“But it does add weight to the public health recommendation to take folic acid early in pregnancy,” he told Reuters Health.
And, he added, it shows that “what you do during pregnancy… is not only important for birth but also for subsequent development.
The study took place in Norway, where 40,000 women – a few months into their pregnancy- were surveyed on what supplements they were taking in the four weeks before they got pregnant and eight weeks after conception.
When their children were three years old, Susser and his colleagues asked the same women about their kids’ language skills, including how many words they could string together in a phrase.
Toddlers who could only say one word at a time or who had “unintelligible utterances” were considered to have severe language delay. In total, about one in 200 kids fit into that category.
Four out of 1,000 kids born to women who took folic acid alone or combined with other vitamins had severe language delays. That compared to nine out of 1,000 kids whose moms didn’t take folic acid before and during early pregnancy.
The pattern remained after Susser’s team took into account other factors that were linked to both folic acid supplementation and language skills, such as a mom’s weight and education, and whether or not she was married.
The study can’t prove that folic acid, itself, prevents language delay, they wrote in the Journal of the American Medical Association. But Susser said the vitamin is known to affect the growth of neurons and could influence how proteins are made from certain genes.
“The recommendation worldwide is that women should be on folate (folic acid) supplements through all their reproductive years,” Susser said.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that all women of childbearing age — and especially those who are planning a pregnancy — consume about 400 micrograms (0.4 milligrams) of folic acid every day. Adequate folic acid intake is very important before conception and at least 3 months afterward to potentially reduce the risk of having a fetus with a neural tube defect.
You can boost your intake by looking for breakfast cereals, breads, pastas, and rice containing 100% of the recommended daily folic acid allowance. But for most women, eating fortified foods isn’t enough. To reach the recommended daily level, you’ll probably need a vitamin supplement.