Mothers with greater iron intake during pregnancy may be less likely to have a child with autism, new research suggests. (Shutterstock)

Mothers with greater iron intake during pregnancy may be less likely to have a child with autism, new research suggests. (Shutterstock)

A nutrient deficiency that’s common among pregnant women could impact the odds of giving birth to a child with autism, researchers say.

Mothers of children with autism are far less likely to have taken supplemental iron prior to and during their pregnancies than those with typically-developing kids, according to a study published this week in the American Journal of Epidemiology.

The greatest risk was seen among mothers who had low iron intake alongside other risk factors including being age 35 or older or having a metabolic condition like obesity, hypertension or diabetes. The study found children born to these moms were five times as likely to develop autism.

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“Iron deficiency, and its resultant anemia, is the most common nutrient deficiency, especially during pregnancy, affecting 40 to 50 percent of women and their infants,” said Rebecca J. Schmidt of the University of California, Davis who led the study. “Iron is crucial to early brain development, contributing to neurotransmitter production, myelination and immune function. All three of these pathways have been associated with autism.”

For the study, researchers asked moms of 520 children with autism and 346 typically-developing kids about their iron intake through vitamins, supplements and breakfast cereals beginning three months prior to their pregnancy and extending through the time they breastfed their children.

Mothers with the highest iron intake had half the risk of having a child with autism compared to those with the lowest iron levels, the study found.

Nonetheless, researchers said their findings will need to be replicated.

“In the meantime the takeaway message for women is do what your doctor recommends. Take vitamins throughout pregnancy, and take the recommended daily dosage,” Schmidt said.