Micronutrients and fetal growth

J Nutr. 2003 May;133(5 Suppl 2):1747S-1756S. doi: 10.1093/jn/133.5.1747S.


Fetal undernutrition affects large numbers of infants in developing countries, with adverse consequences for their immediate survival and lifelong health. It manifests as intrauterine growth retardation (IUGR), defined as birth weight <10th percentile, which probably underestimates the number failing to achieve full growth potential. Birth weight is a crude measure of the dynamic process of fetal growth and does not capture effects of fetal undernutrition on body composition and the development of specific tissues. The link between maternal nutrition and fetal nutrition is indirect. The fetus is nourished by a complex supply line that includes the mother's diet and absorption, endocrine status and metabolism, cardiovascular adaptations to pregnancy and placental function. Micronutrients are essential for growth, and maternal micronutrient deficiency, frequently multiple in developing countries, may be an important cause of IUGR. Supplementation of undernourished mothers with micronutrients has several benefits but there is little hard evidence of improved fetal growth. However, this has been inadequately tested. Most trials have only used single micronutrients and many were inconclusive because of methodological problems. Several food-based studies (some uncontrolled) suggest benefits from improving maternal dietary quality with micronutrient-dense foods. One trial of a multivitamin supplement (HIV-positive mothers, Tanzania) showed increased birth weight and fewer fetal deaths. Well-conducted randomized controlled trials of adequate sample size and including measures of effectiveness are needed in populations at high risk of micronutrient deficiency and IUGR and should include food-based interventions and better measurements of fetal growth, maternal metabolism, and long-term outcomes in the offspring.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Developing Countries
  • Embryonic and Fetal Development / physiology*
  • Female
  • Fetal Death
  • Global Health
  • Humans
  • Infant, Newborn
  • Micronutrients*
  • Nutrition Disorders / physiopathology*
  • Pregnancy
  • Pregnancy Complications / physiopathology*
  • Pregnancy Outcome*
  • Randomized Controlled Trials as Topic


  • Micronutrients