Children in rural Nepal whose mothers were given iron and folic acid supplements during pregnancy were smarter, more organised and had better fine motor skills than children whose mothers did not get them, US researchers said.
They said ensuring that pregnant women get this basic prenatal care could have a big effect on the educational futures of children who live in poor communities where iron deficiency is common.
"Iron is essential for the development of the central nervous system," said Dr Parul Christian, an expert in international health at the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health, whose study appeared online today in the Journal of the American Medical Association.
Christian's team studied 676 school-age children whose mothers had been in a clinical trial in which some got iron and folic acid supplements and other nutrients while they were pregnant. About 80% of the children - aged 7 to 9 - were enrolled in school.
"We had the opportunity to follow the offspring of women who had participated in a randomised trial of iron and folic acid and other micronutrients to assess neuro-cognitive function and outcomes," Christian said.
"What we showed is prenatal iron and folic acid supplementation had a significant impact on the offspring's intellectual level and motor ability and ability during school age, which was a very exciting finding," she said.
Wide range of impacts
"It had an impact across a range of function, including intellectual function, executive function and fine motor function," factors that could affect a child's later academic success, Christian said.
She said many children in poor communities would benefit from better prenatal programs that include the low-cost nutritional supplements.
"These results speak to a large swath of people residing in that part of the world. Iron and folic acid deficiency are very common," she said.
The World Health Organisation estimates that in developing countries, every other pregnant woman is anaemic, as are about 40% of preschool children.
(Reuters Health, Julie Steenhuysen, December 2010)
Pregnancy and nutrition
Pregnancy nutrition tips
Smarter kids are thinner