In an analysis of a cohort of pregnant women, Radek Bukowski and colleagues describe an association between taking folic acid supplements and a reduction in the risk of preterm birth.
Low plasma folate concentrations in pregnancy are associated with preterm birth. Here we show an association between preconceptional folate supplementation and the risk of spontaneous preterm birth.
Methods and Findings
In a cohort of 34,480 low-risk singleton pregnancies enrolled in a study of aneuploidy risk, preconceptional folate supplementation was prospectively recorded in the first trimester of pregnancy. Duration of pregnancy was estimated based on first trimester ultrasound examination. Natural length of pregnancy was defined as gestational age at delivery in pregnancies with no medical or obstetrical complications that may have constituted an indication for delivery. Spontaneous preterm birth was defined as duration of pregnancy between 20 and 37 wk without those complications. The association between preconceptional folate supplementation and the risk of spontaneous preterm birth was evaluated using survival analysis. Comparing to no supplementation, preconceptional folate supplementation for 1 y or longer was associated with a 70% decrease in the risk of spontaneous preterm delivery between 20 and 28 wk (41 [0.27%] versus 4 [0.04%] spontaneous preterm births, respectively; HR 0.22, 95% confidence interval [CI] 0.08–0.61, p = 0.004) and a 50% decrease in the risk of spontaneous preterm delivery between 28 and 32 wk (58 [0.38%] versus 12 [0.18%] preterm birth, respectively; HR 0.45, 95% CI 0.24–0.83, p = 0.010). Adjustment for maternal characteristics age, race, body mass index, education, marital status, smoking, parity, and history of prior preterm birth did not have a material effect on the association between folate supplementation for 1 y or longer and spontaneous preterm birth between 20 and 28, and 28 to 32 wk (adjusted HR 0.31, 95% CI 0.11–0.90, p = 0.031 and 0.53, 0.28–0.99, p = 0.046, respectively). Preconceptional folate supplementation was not significantly associated with the risk of spontaneous preterm birth beyond 32 wk. The association between shorter duration (<1 y) of preconceptional folate supplementation and the risk of spontaneous preterm birth was not significant after adjustment for maternal characteristics. However, the risk of spontaneous preterm birth decreased with the duration of preconceptional folate supplementation (test for trend of survivor functions, p = 0.01) and was the lowest in women who used folate supplementation for 1 y or longer. There was also no significant association with other complications of pregnancy studied after adjustment for maternal characteristics.
Preconceptional folate supplementation is associated with a 50%–70% reduction in the incidence of early spontaneous preterm birth. The risk of early spontaneous preterm birth is inversely proportional to the duration of preconceptional folate supplementation. Preconceptional folate supplementation was specifically related to early spontaneous preterm birth and not associated with other complications of pregnancy.
Most pregnancies last about 40 weeks, but sometimes the new family member arrives early. Every year, half a million babies in the United States (12.5% of all babies) are born prematurely (before 37 completed weeks of pregnancy). Sadly, premature babies are more likely to die than full-term babies and many have short- and/or long-term health problems. Premature babies often have breathing problems, they are susceptible to life-threatening infections, and they are more likely to have learning and developmental disabilities than those born on time. The severity of these health problems depends on the degree of prematurity—preterm babies born between 34 and 36 weeks of pregnancy rarely develop severe disabilities, but a quarter of babies born before 28 weeks of pregnancy develop serious lasting disabilities and half have learning and behavioral problems. Although doctors have identified some risk factors for early delivery (for example, smoking), it is impossible to predict who will have an early birth and there is no effective way to prevent preterm births.
Why Was This Study Done?
Some researchers think that folate supplements may prevent preterm births. Folate (folic acid), a vitamin found in leafy green vegetables, fruits, and dried beans, helps to prevent neural tube birth defects. Consequently, women are encouraged to take folic acid supplements throughout (and preferably before) pregnancy and many governments now mandate that bread, pasta, and other grain products be fortified with folic acid to help women get sufficient folate. There is some evidence that women who deliver early have less folate in their blood than women who deliver at term. Furthermore, folate supplementation during pregnancy has increased the length of pregnancy in some but not all clinical trials. A possible explanation for these mixed results is that the duration of pregnancy reflects conditions in the earliest stages of pregnancy or before conception and that folate supplementation needs to start before conception to reduce the risk of preterm birth. In this study, the researchers test this idea by analyzing data collected from nearly 35,000 pregnant women enrolled in a study that was originally designed to investigate screening for Down's syndrome.
What Did the Researchers Do and Find?
During the first three months of their pregnancy, the women were asked whether they had taken folate supplements before conception. The duration of each pregnancy was estimated from ultrasound measurements taken early in the pregnancy and from the time of delivery. During the study, 1,658 women had spontaneous preterm deliveries before 37 weeks and 160 delivered before 32 weeks. After allowing for other maternal characteristics that might have affected the likelihood of preterm delivery, the risk of spontaneous preterm delivery between 20 and 28 weeks was 70% lower in women who took folate supplements for more than a year before becoming pregnant than in women who didn't take a supplement. Long-term folate supplementation also reduced the risk of preterm delivery between 28 and 32 weeks by 50% but did not affect the risk of preterm birth beyond 32 weeks. Folate supplementation for less than a year before conception did not reduce the risk of preterm birth, and folate supplementation was not associated with any other complications of pregnancy.
What Do These Findings Mean?
These findings show that folate supplementation for a year or more before conception is associated with a 50%–70% decrease in early (but not late) spontaneous preterm births and that the longer a woman takes folate supplements before becoming pregnant, the lower her risk of a preterm birth. Although the researchers allowed for maternal characteristics that might have affected the duration of pregnancy, it is possible that folate supplementation may not be responsible for the reduction in preterm birth risk seen in this study. For example, taking folate supplements may be a marker of healthy behavior and the women taking the supplements might have been doing something else that was reducing their risk of preterm birth. However, despite this and other limitations of this study, these findings suggest that long-term folate supplementation before conception is worth investigating further as a potential way to prevent preterm births.
Please access these Web sites via the online version of this summary at http://dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pmed.1000061.
This study is further discussed in a PLoS Medicine Perspective by Nicholas Fisk
The MedlinePlus encyclopedia contains a page on premature babies (in English and Spanish); MedlinePlus provides links to other information on premature babies (in English and Spanish)
The US National Institute of Child Health and Human Development provides information on preterm labor and birth
The March of Dimes, a nonprofit organization for pregnancy and baby health, provides information on preterm birth and on folic acid (in English and Spanish)
The Nemours Foundation, another nonprofit organization for child health, also provides information on premature babies (in English and Spanish)
The US Office of Dietary Supplements has a fact sheet on folate