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Prenatal use of folic acid and child development

The benefits and risks of folic acid fortification of food – once thought to be clear — are being debated again.

In this study from researchers at the University of Iowa, the effects of prenatal use of folic acid (and other dietary supplements) on child development at 3 years of life were evaluated. This summary focuses on the folic acid results.

First, the details.

  • Data from the 1988 National Maternal Infant Health Survey and the 1991 follow-up supplement were used for this study.
  • Child development measures were based on a set of 16 Denver developmental screening items — a scale used by psychologists and pediatricians to assess the developmental, intellectual, motor, and social maturity of children.

And, the results.

  • Folic acid was associated with improved gross-motor development.
  • There was a more pronounced effect among African-American children.
  • There was marginally significant poorer performance for socialization in these children, however.

The bottom line?
Folic acid decreases the occurrence of neural tube defects, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the World Health Organization (WHO) recommend that women of childbearing age consume 0.4 mg of folic acid per day.

The results of this study suggest that using folic acid at conception and/or during the first trimester of pregnancy has positive effects overall on child development. However, there is concern about the weak negative effects reported in personal/social development n African-American children.

It’s possible there’s an interaction between folic acid use and characteristics that may vary by race such as maternal nutritional status.

The authors concluded, “while prenatal folic acid supplementation may improve development at 3 years of age, further research is needed.”

4/20/08 10:30 JR

Hi, I’m JR

John Russo, Jr., PharmD, is president of The MedCom Resource, Inc. Previously, he was senior vice president of medical communications at, a complementary and alternative medicine website.