Effects and safety of preventive oral iron or iron + folic acid supplementation for women during pregnancy

During pregnancy, women need iron and folate to meet both their own needs and those of the developing baby. The concern is that if pregnant women become deficient in these nutrients they are unable to supply them in sufficient quantities to their baby. Low folate nutrition before conceiving increases the risk of the baby having neural tube defects. Low iron and folate levels in women can cause anaemia, which can make women tired, faint, and at increased risk of infection.

We included 61 randomised trials in the review with 44 trials involving 43,274 pregnant women contributing to the analyses. The use of iron or iron and folic acid supplements was associated with a reduced risk of anaemia and iron deficiency during pregnancy. There was some indication that maternal iron supplements during pregnancy could improve outcomes for babies (birthweight and preterm birth) but the evidence for this was not of high quality.There is no evidence that iron supplementation increases placental malaria.

Authors' conclusions: 

Supplementation reduces the risk of maternal anaemia and iron deficiency in pregnancy but the positive effect on other maternal and infant outcomes is less clear. Implementation of iron supplementation recommendations may produce heterogeneous results depending on the populations' background risk for low birthweight and anaemia, as well as the level of adherence to the intervention.

Read the full abstract...

Iron and folic acid supplementation has been the preferred intervention to improve iron stores and prevent anaemia among pregnant women, and it is thought to improve other maternal and birth outcomes.


To assess the effects of daily oral iron supplements for pregnant women, either alone or in conjunction with folic acid, or with other vitamins and minerals as a public health intervention in antenatal care.

Search strategy: 

We searched the Cochrane Pregnancy and Childbirth Group's Trials Register (10 January 2015). We also searched the WHO International Clinical Trials Registry Platform (ICTRP) (26 February 2015) and contacted relevant organisations for the identification of ongoing and unpublished studies (26 February 2015) .

Selection criteria: 

Randomised or quasi-randomised trials evaluating the effects of oral preventive supplementation with daily iron, iron + folic acid or iron + other vitamins and minerals during pregnancy.

Data collection and analysis: 

We assessed the methodological quality of trials using standard Cochrane criteria. Two review authors independently assessed trial eligibility, extracted data and conducted checks for accuracy. We used the GRADE approach to assess the quality of the evidence for primary outcomes.

We anticipated high heterogeneity among trials and we pooled trial results using a random-effects model and were cautious in our interpretation of the pooled results: the random-effects model gives the average treatment effect.

Main results: 

We included 61 trials. Forty-four trials, involving 43,274 women, contributed data and compared the effects of daily oral supplements containing iron versus no iron or placebo.

Preventive iron supplementation reduced maternal anaemia at term by 70% (risk ratio (RR) 0.30; 95% confidence interval (CI) 0.19 to 0.46, 14 trials, 2199 women, low quality evidence), iron-deficiency anaemia at term (RR 0.33; 95% CI 0.16 to 0.69, six trials, 1088 women), and iron deficiency at term by 57% (RR 0.43; 95% CI 0.27 to 0.66, seven trials, 1256 women, low quality evidence). There were no clear differences between groups for severe anaemia in the second or third trimester, or maternal infection during pregnancy (RR 0.22; 95% CI 0.01 to 3.20, nine trials, 2125 women, very low quality evidence; and, RR 1.21; 95% CI 0.33 to 4.46; one trial, 727 women, low quality evidence, respectively), or maternal mortality (RR 0.33; 95% CI 0.01 to 8.19, two trials, 12,560 women, very low quality evidence), or reporting of side effects (RR 1.29; 95% CI 0.83 to 2.02, 11 trials, 2423 women, very low quality evidence). Women receiving iron were on average more likely to have higher haemoglobin (Hb) concentrations at term and in the postpartum period, but were at increased risk of Hb concentrations greater than 130 g/L during pregnancy, and at term.

Compared with controls, women taking iron supplements less frequently had low birthweight newborns (8.4% versus 10.3%, average RR 0.84; 95% CI 0.69 to 1.03, 11 trials, 17,613 women, low quality evidence), and preterm babies (RR 0.93; 95% CI 0.84 to 1.03, 13 trials, 19,286 women, moderate quality evidence). They appeared to also deliver slightly heavier babies (mean difference (MD) 23.75; 95% CI -3.02 to 50.51, 15 trials, 18,590 women, moderate quality evidence). None of these results were statistically significant. There were no clear differences between groups for neonatal death (RR 0.91; 95% CI 0.71 to 1.18, four trials, 16,603 infants, low quality evidence), or congenital anomalies (RR 0.88, 95% CI 0.58 to 1.33, four trials, 14,636 infants, low quality evidence).

Twenty-three studies were conducted in countries that in 2011 had some malaria risk in parts of the country. In some of these countries/territories, malaria is present only in certain areas or up to a particular altitude. Only two of these studies reported malaria outcomes. There is no evidence that iron supplementation increases placental malaria. For some outcomes heterogeneity was higher than 50%.