Providing vitamin supplements to poorly nourished women during pregnancy may reduce the risk of them giving birth to underweight babies, a study has shown.
A trial of 400 women in Hackney, east London, found the number of "small-for-gestational age" babies was reduced among those who took a multi-vitamin supplement compared with those given a placebo.
The findings suggest diet in pregnancy may affect the health of babies later in life. Babies who are underweight at birth have a higher incidence of heart and other problems in adulthood.
The women in the study, conducted by the Institute of Brain Chemistry and Human Nutrition at London Metropolitan University and published in the Journal of Nutrition, had higher levels of vitamin and mineral deficiency than the general population, indicative of a poor diet.
More than two thirds (72 per cent) had low levels of vitamin D in their blood, 13 per cent were anaemic (low levels of iron) and 12 per cent were deficient in thiamin. Lead researcher Dr Louise Brough said although the study was small, its findings were "statistically significant and justify a larger study". Eight of the 88 babies (9 per cent) born to mothers using the supplements were underweight compared to 13 of the 61 women (20 per cent) in the placebo group.
Professor Michael Crawford, the study's co-author and director of the Institute, said the study "blows out of the water the idea that all women in the UK are adequately nourished".
Attempts to encourage better diets as a way of improving the nutritional status of mothers in socially deprived areas were often hampered by lack of money, differing cultures and hectic lifestyles, the researchers said.
Consultant obstetrician Pat O'Brien, of University College London, said: "Small babies are more likely to have breathing problems, develop jaundice and [have] difficulties with temperature control in the short-term but even more problems in the long-term.
"If a baby is short of nutrients in the womb, then they are more likely later in life to suffer from obesity, diabetes, heart attacks and strokes. What happens to a baby in the womb can almost programme the baby for life."
Mr O'Brien said it was important to take specially tailored multi-vitamins during pregnancy. "You have to be cautious about taking random vitamins in pregnancy, they may cause harm," he added. Previous research suggested vitamins A, C and E might make babies smaller. He added that it would be much cheaper to give out supplements than look after small babies in intensive care.