Can supplements boost baby brain power?



Hudson Valley parents react to a folic acid health study

Einstein’s mom must have been a fan of folic acid and iron supplements, because moms who take these vitamins and minerals produce smarter children. At least that’s what researchers from the John Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health suggest in a new study. Hudson Valley moms say they believe the research bears out based on their own experience. Jennifer Desormier Klein of East Fishkill also credits folic acid for her kids’ good health. “My two sons are ages 5 and 2 and besides the occasional cold, are very healthy. They’ve never even had to be on an antibiotic!” says Klein.

The study

The study, which was published a few months ago in the Journal of the American Medical Association, found that pregnant mothers who took folic acid and iron in Nepal gave birth to smarter babies. Researchers began tracking the pregnant mothers in 1999 and followed the progress of nearly 700 children from birth to nine years old. Their research showed that children whose mothers took prenatal supplements of folic acid and iron had higher reasoning skills than their counterparts whose mothers had not taken the supplements.

Importance for U.S. women

Folic acid, also known as vitamin B9, has long been regarded as an important nutrient for women who become pregnant, since it helps to prevent birth defects (see sidebar). Doctors also generally recommend that expectant moms take iron supplements to prevent anemia, since anemia during pregnancy increases the risk of premature birth and low birth weight babies. Many Valley moms have been singing the praises of taking prenatal vitamins and supplements. “Both my husband and I have many health issues on both sides of our family. We decided that I would start taking extra folic acid and prenatal vitamins six months before I decided to have a baby,” says Renee Borst Goldman of Washingtonville. “The reason we decided this was we were hoping that this would help us to have a healthy pregnancy and baby. We are blessed with a healthy and happy boy.”

Local doctor weighs in

At least one Valley doctor is expressing caution over the Nepal findings. “Americans have a very different diet than the participants in the Nepal study which tends to be higher in iron. We have many foods fortified with folic acid,” says Dr. Kimberly Heller, director of Maternal Fetal Medicine at Vassar Brothers Medical Center in Poughkeepsie. Dr. Heller feels there are some technical problems with the study including the small sample size. While she does not believe the research conclusively proves a link between taking prenatal supplements and a child’s intelligence, she believes that pregnant mothers benefit by taking iron to prevent them from becoming anemic and folic acid to prevent birth defects. “Neural tube defects include severe brain abnormalities and spina bifida. Folic acid supplementation around the time of conception and the first trimester can prevent some of these birth defects,” she says.

What is the recommended dosage?

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) is urging pregnant women to take 400 micrograms of folic acid per day to prevent major birth defects to the baby’s brain and spine. The CDC wants women to begin taking the supple-ment at least a month before they try to get pregnant. Since almost half of pregnancies in the United States are unplanned, the CDC, the U.S. Public Health Service, and the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) suggest that all women of childbearing age take 400 mcg of folic acid daily.

Don’t take more than 1,000 mcg of folic acid per day. This does not increase your chances of a baby genius. Two studies released last month found that too much of good thing can pose serious health risks. In Canada, a McGill University study suggests that too much folic acid causes delayed growth in mice. Meanwhile, a Tufts University researcher claims too much folic acid could raise the risk of cancer. Remember to consult with a medical professional before taking any vitamins or supplements. Visit cdc.gov for more information.

Final thoughts

In conclusion, Dr. Heller is advising that parents take the Nepal study “with a grain of salt.” She feels the most important thing to do for healthy and happy babies is to maintain a healthy lifestyle before and after you become pregnant. Still, HV Parent has encountered some moms who are willing to give folic acid credit for their brainy kids. “My doctor recommended that I take folic acid during both my pregnancies and while nursing. Both my kids are too smart for my own good,” says Amy Smith Sinchak of Illinois, who responded to us on Facebook. “My older child has a mind like a steel trap. He can repeat verbatim, things that were literally said two years ago!”

Bridget Schultz is the editorial assistant at Hudson Valley Parent and Hudson Valley Life magazines.

Folate in foods

Naturally occurring folic acid found in foods is called folate. Here are some foods that are high in folate or folic acid and how many micrograms (mcg) are in each serving. “In the U.S., many foods are supplemented with folic acid, so that young women will be getting enough folic acid even if they are not planning a pregnancy,” says Dr. Kimberly Heller, director of Maternal Fetal Medicine at Vassar Brothers Medical Center in Poughkeepsie.

Folic Acid in mcg /Serving Dietary Folate Equivalents*(DFE)

  • Ready-to-eat breakfast cereal 100 – 400/serving; read labels
  • Enriched pasta, cooked 92/half cup
  • Whole wheat bread 14/slice
  • Whole wheat pasta 23/half cup
  • Orange juice 60-100/cup
  • Spinach, raw 58/cup
  • Asparagus 110/5 spears