October 11th, 2011
05:36 PM ET
Mothers who take folic acid supplements before and during pregnancy greatly reduce the risk of their children having severe language delays, according to a study published Tuesday in the Journal of the American Medical Association.
Compared with mothers who took no folic acid supplements, mothers who took them starting from four weeks before pregnancy reduced the risk that their children would have severe language delays by age 3, the researchers found. The risk was cut in half– and that's after researchers controlled for maternal education, weight, and socio-demographic factors.
Interestingly, mothers who took other supplements, but not folic acid, saw no risk reduction, signaling that folic acid has a unique effect on the child's development.
Although the benefits of folic acid in protecting against neural tube defects has long been documented in medical studies, this research is further evidence that the supplements may protect against other neurodevelopment disorders as well.
Researchers used Norwegian mothers and children for the study, in part because the comprehensive health care systems found in Scandinavian countries including Norway make it easier to do large epidemiological studies, but also because Norway does not add folic acid supplements to foods.
In the United States, flours are typically fortified with folic acid, a significant difference between the American diet and the diet of the mothers studied.
Still, Dr. Alan Fleischman, medical director of the March of Dimes, says that mothers should not rely solely on folic acid from fortified foods.
"We've always recommended supplements because fortified foods, although they do give us some folic acid, it really doesn't reach the 400 micrograms that we recommend for all women of child-bearing age" says Fleischman.
"We still don't actually know the mechanism by which folic acid protects against neural tube defects. But it's another additional reason women should take supplements."
The study tracked about 40,000 Norwegian children with 0.5% of them having a severe language delay, meaning those children could make only one-word or unintelligible utterances at age 3.
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