In this guide, we have the answers to all of the important questions you might have about prenatal vitamins. What are they, why they matter, when you should start taking them, what to expect when you do, and more. Whether you’re just looking into vitamins as you consider conceiving or you are pregnant and want more information as you choose a prenatal vitamin, the answers you need are here.
What Are Prenatal Vitamins and Why Can’t I Just Take My Multivitamin?
Prenatal vitamins are in many ways similar to adult daily multivitamins — they’re full of key vitamins and minerals, and are intended to serve as a supplement for an already healthy, well-rounded diet. Together, your diet and vitamin supplements can provide your body with all of the nutrients your body needs.
There are a few major differences, though. Prenatal vitamins are typically higher in folic acid, iron, calcium, and other nutrients that pregnant women need to remain healthy and nourish their baby. These nutrients can help the baby grow healthy and strong, and assist in preventing potentially serious birth defects.
When Should I Start Taking Prenatal Vitamins?
If you’re trying to conceive, you can and should start taking prenatal vitamins, so, when you do become pregnant, your growing baby will immediately have access to the vital nutrients he or she needs. And, considering some women may be pregnant for a while before they realize (and around half of all pregnancies are unplanned), it is a great idea to get started early — the Centers for Disease Control recommend that “all women of reproductive age” take a folic acid supplement or prenatal vitamin daily.
But, don’t worry if you know you’re pregnant and didn’t start taking prenatal vitamins before you conceived! While it’s a good idea to get ahead of the game, so to speak, what matters now is providing your growing baby all of the nutrients they need over the course of the pregnancy. Just start taking one.
What Are the Key Vitamins and Minerals in a Prenatal Vitamin?
The most important nutrient in your prenatal vitamin in the first month or so of pregnancy is folic acid. It’s a B vitamin, also found in foods like fortified cereals and leafy green vegetables that our bodies use to make new cells. A typical prenatal vitamin dosage is 400 mcg of folic acid, the recommended daily amount for pregnant women.
Folic acid is particularly important early in pregnancy because it helps form the neural tube, and thus, can help prevent birth defects of the brain and spinal cord, such as spina bifida. These defects typically form in the first 28 days of pregnancy, which is why women who may become pregnant are encouraged to take a prenatal vitamin or folic acid supplement daily.
Be sure to talk to your doctor about your pregnancy’s specific folic acid needs. Most women will be fine with the amount of folic acid in a typical prenatal vitamin, but depending on other factors (like a previous pregnancy with a neural tube defect), your doctor may recommend an additional supplement, up to 4,000 mcg a day. And don’t just rely on your supplement! Include more fortified foods and leafy greens to get plenty of nutrition from your diet.
Prenatal vitamins contain more iron than a standard multivitamin because this mineral promotes overall growth and development of the baby. Iron also augments the growth of the red blood cells your baby needs to carry oxygen properly and can help prevent anemia, a condition when your blood has a low number of healthy red blood cells.
You may have heard that pregnant women are at risk of losing bone density as the growing baby uses calcium to grow and develop his/her own bones. Prenatal vitamins and a balanced diet can help pregnant women offset this by providing enough calcium for both mother, to remain healthy, and baby, to develop and grow.
Your prenatal will likely contain iodine to ensure healthy thyroid function throughout your pregnancy, which is necessary for the proper development of your baby. In some cases, iodine deficiencies can be associated with stunted development, cognitive disability, deafness, and even miscarriage or stillbirth.
What Else Should I Know?
It’s important to recognize that prenatal vitamins serve as a supplement, not a replacement for a nutritious diet. You should still be eating healthy foods that contain the nutrients your baby needs to develop and you need to remain healthy and strong throughout pregnancy and into motherhood!
Depending on the nature of your diet, your doctor may recommend other supplements as well. Omega-3 fatty acids may help promote your baby’s brain development, so if you don’t eat fish or other foods high in omega-3 fatty acids, your doctor may recommend a specific prenatal vitamin or an additional supplement.
While prenatal vitamins are not associated with any serious side effects, some women who are already experiencing nausea during their pregnancy may find that taking their prenatal vitamin also causes nausea. In this event, simply tell your health care provider so they can help you find a supplement that works better for you. Some women, for example, do better with chewable or liquid vitamins than those that should be swallowed whole, and vice versa.
The high doses of iron in prenatal vitamins may also contribute to constipation for some women. Drinking more water, consuming more fiber in your diet, and maintaining physical activity may help with this, but you can also speak to your doctor about other options, including taking a stool softener, adding another supplement, or spacing out your iron intake differently.
One last thing to keep in mind: we are still learning a great deal about pregnancy and the human body, so the full benefits of supplements like prenatal vitamins are not yet known.
For example, a recent study published in JAMA Psychiatry, a peer-reviewed journal published by the American Medical Association (AMA), suggests there may be a link between taking prenatal vitamins in the first month of pregnancy and reduced occurrence of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and less severe symptoms when ASD is diagnosed.
The research focused upon families at higher likelihood of ASD and calls for further studies to prove a stronger link and inform any public health recommendations, so there are many questions remaining. However, the study is a great example of the rapid strides researchers around the world are making in medical science and even more reason to take a prenatal vitamin.
Talk to your doctor about what is best for your specific pregnancy and how you are feeling. Just because you may already be expecting nausea in your pregnancy, for example, that doesn’t mean you should ignore the effects of a prenatal vitamin that makes you feel worse. You should be communicating frequently and honestly with your medical providers (and whole pregnancy team!), to get on the same page early and make your pregnancy easier.
Prenatal vitamins may be a supplement to your already healthy diet, but they are an important one. If you haven’t started taking them already and are pregnant or trying to conceive, now is the time to start!