Folic acid is a B vitamin that is an important component in prenatal vitamins. This vitamin appears to play an important role in the development of the nervous system including the brain during pregnancy. When taken before and during pregnancy, folic acid has been shown to decrease the risk of neural tube defects such as spina bifida. Other benefits of folic acid supplementation are not as clear.
Researchers from Norway wanted to know if maternal intake of folic acid during pregnancy would affect language development in children. The study, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, found that prenatal folic acid intake was associated with decreased risk of severe language delay in children aged three years.
The prospective cohort study included 38,954 children from Norway. Information about maternal dietary supplements from four weeks before conception through eight weeks of pregnancy was collected. The children were also assessed at three years of age for language development delays. 204 children had severe language delays, defined as only one word communication or unintelligible utterances. Severe language delay was found in:
- 0.9% of children in cases where the mothers did not take folic acid supplements
- 0.4% of children in cases where the mothers took folic acid supplements
This meant that children whose mothers took folic acid had about half the risk of having severe language delay.
A cohort study is a type of observational study. This means that although there may be a connection between folic acid and language development, this study cannot make a firm conclusion. In the United States some foods such as cereal, breads and pastas are enriched with folic acid to help increase levels in general population. This study took place in Norway, which does not have a food enrichment program. As a result, the women in this trial may have had lower levels of folic acid to start with and the benefits of folic acid supplements may have been exaggerated.
Prenatal folic acid supplementation has already been established as safe and highly effective in prevention of birth defects. Potential prevention of language delays is just one more reason to remember to take the folic acid supplements if you are planning to become pregnant. It is most beneficial when started before pregnancy but many pregnancies are not planned. Consider adding a daily folic acid supplement to your diet even if you have no immediate plans for pregnancy.
Roth C, Magnus P, Schjolberg S, et al. Folic acid supplements in pregnancy and severe language delay in children.
JAMA. 2011 Oct 12;306(14):1566-73.
Last reviewed November 2011 by Brian P. Randall, MD
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