Prenatal Vitamin B Helps Babies Talk on Time

Folic acid supplements may help language development in children

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD

(RxWiki News) Parents are often anxious to hear their children's first words and worry if that first word is late. Taking a particular B vitamin in early pregnancy could keep 'Baby' on track for talking.

Women in Norway who took folic acid (vitamin B9) supplements starting four weeks before conception and until eight weeks after conception gave birth to children who a lower risk severe language delay at age 3, than women who did not take the supplement.

"Prenatal folic acid may help babies' language skills."

Previous clinical trials and other studies have shown that folic acid supplements taken during the period that begins right before conception and lasts through the first weeks of pregnancy, called the periconception period, reduce the risk of spinal cord defects.

However, none of these studies have followed up to investigate whether these supplements have effects on a child's brain and nervous system development after birth.

Christine Roth, M.Sc., of the Norwegian Institute of Public Health in Oslo, and her colleagues held a study to investigate a possible link between women who took folic acid supplements during the periconception period and a reduced risk for severe language delay among their children at age 3.

The study was unique to Norway because unlike the U.S., the researchers note, Norway does not fortify its foods with folic acid, thus the benefits of taking folic acid supplements versus not taking them would be more apparent.

The authors add that to their knowledge, no previous observational study has examined the relationship between prenatal folic acid supplements and severe language delay in children.

Pregnant women were recruited for the study beginning in 1999, and data were included on children born before 2008 whose mothers returned the three-year followup questionnaire by June 2010. The main outcome the study measured was the children's language skills at age 3 as reported by their mothers. Children spoke in only one-word sentences or made unintelligible utterances were rated as having severe language delay.

The study included some 39,000 children, who were roughly equally divided between boys and girls. Of all the children in the study, about 200 (less than 1%) were rated as having severe language delay. Boys seemed to fare worse than girls: some 160 boys compared to 45 girls were found to have severe language delay.

The roughly 9,000 children whose mothers took no dietary supplements in the specified time period were the reference group. Of these children, some 80 (about 1%) of them were found to have severe language delay. The results for the children of mothers who took some sort of periconception supplement are as follows:

  • Some 19,00 children were born to mothers who took folic acid in combination with other supplements, with severe language delay in some 70 children
  • More than 7,100 children were born to mothers who took folic acid only, with severe language delay in about 30 children
  • About 2,500 children were born to mothers who took other supplements with no folic acid, with severe language delay in about 20 children

The researchers also looked at the children's motor skills at age 3 and found, however, no association between maternal use of folic acid supplements and significant motor skills delay at age 3. Note the researchers, "Such a factor might be expected to relate to both language and motor delay."

In their conclusion, the study authors state that if future research shows the relationship between prenatal folic acid intake to directly affect language development, "it would have important implications for understanding the biological processes underlying disrupted neurodevelopment, for the prevention of neurodevelopmental disorders and for policies of folic acid supplementation for women of reproductive age."

The study appears in the October 12 issue of JAMA.

Reviewed by: 
Review Date: 
October 11, 2011
Last Updated:
October 11, 2011