If you’re pregnant or planning to become pregnant, you may have heard about prenatal vitamins. You may be wondering when to start taking them and how they can help aid your baby’s development.
Read on for a guide to prenatal vitamins.
What Are Prenatal Vitamins?
Prenatal vitamins are dietary supplements that contain the daily vitamins and minerals your body needs during pregnancy.
Eating a healthy diet is the best way to meet your body’s nutritional needs. But you may not get all the vitamins and minerals you need through food alone.
Choose foods high in nutritional value:
- Lean proteins
Limit foods low in nutritional value:
- Added sugars
- Fried foods
- Added fats
- Processed foods
Getting enough of certain vitamins can be especially important before and during pregnancy because they may affect the baby’s development in the womb.
Why Is It Important to Take Prenatal Vitamins?
During pregnancy, you’re in charge of keeping two people healthy: yourself and your growing baby.
During pregnancy, you need more of two key nutrients:
- Folic acid. Folic acid, or folate, is a B vitamin that your cells need to grow. Taking 400 mcg of folic acid each day for at least a month before trying to get pregnant and throughout your pregnancy can help lower the risk of neural tube defects, which are serious abnormalities of the baby’s brain and spinal cord. People with sickle cell disease or a previous pregnancy with neural tube defects may need higher levels of folic acid. Talk to your doctor about the right dose for you.
- Iron. Iron helps your body make blood. When you’re pregnant, you need about twice the amount of iron than you did before. That’s because your body needs to make extra blood for your baby. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends taking a low-dose 27 mg iron supplement when you have your first prenatal appointment. Getting enough iron can prevent a condition called iron-deficiency anemia, which can cause your baby to be born too small or too early.
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When Should You Start Taking Prenatal Vitamins?
The best time to start taking prenatal vitamins is before conception. In fact, it’s a good idea for everyone to take a prenatal vitamin when trying to conceive. That’s because the baby’s neural tube develops in the first month of pregnancy — possibly before you even find out you’re pregnant.
How Do You Choose the Right Prenatal Vitamins?
If you’ve had pregnancy complications or other health concerns, your doctor might recommend a prescription prenatal vitamin. Otherwise, you can take an over-the-counter (OTC) vitamin available at your local pharmacy or online.
Most prenatal vitamins contain all or most of the micronutrients needed during pregnancy. Some fall short, however. Make sure to read labels before buying a prenatal vitamin. Here are some nutrients to look for:
- Choline. This is an essential nutrient for fetal and placental growth. Most people don’t get enough choline in their diets. Pick a prenatal vitamin that includes choline and try to eat choline-rich foods like egg yolks.
- Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). This is another nutrient that plays an important role in fetal brain development. Most women of child-bearing age don’t get enough DHA or eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), another fatty acid that’s important during pregnancy. Look for a prenatal with these nutrients.
- Vitamin D. Vitamin D is another important nutrient in prenatals. Vitamin D recommendations during pregnancy are 600 IU. However, research suggests that women need about 4,000 IU of vitamin D per day to maintain optimal levels during pregnancy.
The Best Prenatal Vitamins
In many cases, brand and generic prenatal vitamins are relatively equivalent, based on the vitamin, mineral, and micronutrient content of the product. So, to pick the best prenatal vitamin for you, always check the label for key vitamins.
Make sure to check the serving size. Sometimes, with gummies and chewables for example, the serving size can be more than one pill. If you are considering gummy or chewable vitamins, watch for artificial sweeteners. You may want to minimize those based on your doctor’s recommendation and your own preferences.
Since the Food and Drug Administration does not oversee the content, labelling, or sale of vitamins, ingredient content and absorption can vary. You can look for the “USP Verified” symbol on the label for assurance of the product’s vitamin content.
What Other Nutrients Should You Be Concerned About?
A few other nutrients you might want to look for are:
- Calcium. This helps the development of the baby’s teeth and bones. A prenatal multivitamin may not have all of the needed calcium, so you may need to take an additional calcium supplement. It also has the added benefit of helping to relieve nausea and heartburn.
- Vitamin C. The general recommended amount is 1,300 – 2,000 mg per day.
- Vitamin A.
- Vitamin E.
- B vitamins.
- Omega-3 fatty acids. Found naturally in many kinds of fish, these help promote the baby’s brain development. If you’re not a fan of fish or other foods high in omega-3 fatty acids, your doctor might recommend omega-3 fatty acid supplements in addition to prenatal vitamins.
Should You Take Herbal Supplements?
In general, it’s probably best to minimize or avoid the use of herbal supplements, except for ginger. There is no good evidence on the safety and effectiveness of many herbal medications.
Are There Any Side Effects of Prenatal Vitamins?
In general, prenatal vitamins are safe and effective in keeping you and your growing baby healthy. But taking extra prenatal vitamins or mixing supplements with a multivitamin could cause dosing that exceeds your daily needs and could be harmful to your baby. For example, too much vitamin A during pregnancy may cause birth defects or miscarriage. Talk to your doctor about which vitamins you should be taking and how much to take.
The most common side effects reported from prenatal vitamins are constipation and nausea.
To prevent constipation:
- Drink plenty of fluids.
- Include more fiber in your diet.
- Stay physically active throughout your day.
- Try a bulk-forming laxative or stool softener.
- Try a slow-release iron supplement.
- Try a vitamin with less calcium, and then take calcium separately.
To prevent nausea:
- Change the time of day you take the vitamin. Afternoon is better than before bedtime because lying down increases your chance of reflux.
- Take the vitamin with a small meal.
- Eat smaller, more frequent meals.
- Try another brand.
Iron supplements may also have a metallic taste and cause nausea, constipation, and green or black stool.
If these tips don’t seem to help, ask your doctor about other options.
Why It’s Important to Consult Your Doctor
Avoid taking several different supplements during pregnancy unless your doctor has instructed you to do so. Instead, take one prenatal multivitamin that includes a variety of nutrients in one dose. Combining supplements (such as a folic acid supplement) with your prenatal multivitamin can raise your risk of overdosing on a particular nutrient.
Make sure to tell your doctor about all OTC supplements you’re taking at your prenatal visit.
Start Taking Prenatal Vitamins Today
To get the jump on a healthy pregnancy, start taking prenatal vitamins today. Once you conceive, keep taking your prenatal vitamins through your entire pregnancy. That way, you get the nutrients you need to stay healthy and support your baby’s development.
Talk to your doctor about recommended supplements for after childbirth too. Your doctor may recommend that you continue taking prenatal vitamins for six to eight weeks after giving birth to aid in postpartum recovery, or that you begin taking postnatal or lactation dietary supplements to help with breastfeeding.
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About UPMC Magee-Womens Hospital
For more than a century, UPMC Magee-Womens Hospital has provided high-quality medical care to women at all stages of life. UPMC Magee is long-renowned for its services to women and babies but also offers a wide range of care to men as well. Our patient-first approach ensures you and your loved ones get the care you need. Nearly 10,000 babies are born each year at Magee, and our NICU is one of the largest in the country. Our network of care – from imaging centers to hospital services – provides care throughout Pennsylvania and Maryland, giving you a chance to get the expert care you need close to home. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recognizes UPMC Magee as a National Center of Excellence in Women’s Health, and the Magee-Womens Research Institute is the largest research institute in the U.S. devoted exclusively to women’s health and reproductive biology.