Pregnancy can place a huge toll on the body. Even completely normal and healthy pregnancies change your body. You can adjust to your body's changing needs by supplementing a healthy diet with the vitamins you and your baby need. Managing your prenatal vitamins can do everything from helping prevent birth defects to supporting a healthy growing baby.
What do prenatal vitamins do?
Prenatal vitamin benefits can vary from supporting your body to helping the development of the fetus. It's important for women of childbearing age who may get pregnant to know what their body needs to support a healthy pregnancy.
Prenatal supplements are meant to fill in the gaps that are hard to manage with a healthy diet alone. While it's usually ideal to get necessary nutrients from food over supplements, there are many reasons it might be difficult to do so. Expecting parents living without reliable access to grocery stores may struggle with access to nutritious food while vegetarian mothers may fall behind on protein and iron intake. Your OB-GYN or another healthcare provider can advise you on the best prenatal vitamins based on your diet, habits, and needs.
Types of prenatal vitamins
There are a few vitamins that are commonly recommended to address the nutritional needs of expectant mothers. The key nutrients* for people who are pregnant include:
Folic acid is an important part of preventing neural tube defects (like spina bifida or anencephaly), which can seriously affect the baby's brain and spinal cord. It is recommended that you start taking folic acid three months before getting pregnant. Otherwise, it's good to start taking about 600 micrograms (mcg) of folic acid daily as soon as possible after finding out you're pregnant. Since the neural tube develops during the first weeks of pregnancy, you may not even know you're pregnant as it develops.
Iron is essential for the red blood cells delivering oxygen to your baby's brain and iron helps in preventing anemia. Anemia is a condition in which your body doesn’t have enough red blood cells to carry sufficient oxygen, which can result in fatigue, dizziness, and malaise. Women should be getting at 27 milligrams (mg) of iron daily. If you are prone to iron-deficiency anemia, you should talk to your doctor about meeting the recommended iron dosing.
Extra calcium supports your bones and encourages the healthy development of the baby’s bones and teeth. Pregnant adults should be getting 1,000 grams (g) of calcium a day to support healthy bone growth.
Choline also supports healthy brain and spinal cord development in your baby . Choline also helps the placenta function properly as it supports the baby's growth. In the third trimester, supplement choline with DHA to encourage brain tissue growth and function. The recommended daily intake for choline is 450 mg.
Vitamin D, C, A, and E
While not completely necessary, the addition of these vitamins helps encourage a lot of healthy development. Vitamin D (600 iu daily) and Vitamin A (770 mcg for adults) are both good for skin and eyesight health, as well as bone development. Vitamin C (85 mg for adults) helps bone and teeth development. Vitamins E and C can help reduce the risk of preeclampsia, which is abnormally high blood pressure that can be dangerous for both the mother and the baby. Talk to your doctor before using these supplements, as an excess of Vitamin A, in particular, can harm your baby.
The range of B vitamins promotes health in general but has some extra benefits during pregnancy. Vitamin B12 may help prevent birth defects and support healthy bone development. Vitamin B6 helps develop red blood cells while also supporting the body's use of protein, fat, and carbs. Vitamins B1, B2, B9 are also important for your energy and fetus development. In general, you should aim for 1.9 mg daily of B6 and 2.6 mcg of B12.
Zinc offers an essential immune system boost, protecting both you and the developing baby. It also promotes healthy growth and development and helps cells divide and synthesize protein.
Iodine is an essential part of healthy brain development, but it's relatively hard to get as part of a natural diet, especially for vegetarians and vegans. Pregnant women should be getting 220 mcg of iodine a day.
*amounts provided by the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists
How to get prenatal vitamins for pregnancy
The best way to get the necessary prenatal vitamins is through a balanced diet. Since you already need to change your approach to nutrition during pregnancy, it's recommended that you talk to your doctor about foods to avoid or eat more of during pregnancy and track your new nutrition needs. For example, increasing your omega-3 fatty acid intake is one of the more common recommendations for pregnant people.
Another way you'll get prenatal vitamins is over-the-counter. Your doctor may advise you on which supplements you need for your particular situation, but most people won't need a prescription. Some special cases may require prescription prenatal supplements, but your doctor will let you know if you need them.
What are the benefits of prenatal vitamins?
The benefits of taking prenatal vitamins vary based on what kinds of vitamins you're taking. Providing your body with the essential nutrients helps your baby during essential parts of development, including the nervous system, bones, and brain.
Prenatal vitamin benefits can also extend to general comfort since they can help alleviate some of the nausea associated with morning sickness. If you vomit frequently, it can also help replace the nutrients you lose.
Side effects of prenatal vitamins
One of the most common side effects of prenatal vitamins is constipation. To combat this, it's important to drink enough water, eat more fiber, and include some moderate physical activity in your daily routine, with your doctor's permission. If you continue to have constipation or nausea, you can talk to your doctor for recommendations for a different brand of supplements. Prenatal vitamins shouldn't come with severe side effects, so seek urgent medical help if you experience anything more severe than nausea or constipation.
Can you take prenatal vitamins without being pregnant?
Women who aren't pregnant can still benefit from several of the nutrients in prenatal vitamins. According to the CDC, all women should be getting 400 mcg of folic acid a day, which is especially helpful if you're planning to become pregnant. If your diet is deficient in any of the above vitamins, you might benefit from prenatal vitamins. Talk to your doctor if you have concerns about your nutrient levels.
What is in prenatal vitamins?
You can find prenatal vitamins in many combinations. There are individual supplements for specific nutrients as well as multivitamins that combine the common nutrient needs for pregnancy. Ask your doctor what the best prenatal vitamins for you are.
What are prenatal vitamins good for?
Prenatal vitamins help the baby develop correctly and encourage healthy growth during pregnancy. A steady vitamin routine can help avoid low birth weight, birth defects, and some preterm births. Folic acid and Vitamins C and E can help avoid preeclampsia.
When should you start taking prenatal vitamins?
If you're trying to get pregnant, the best time to take prenatal vitamins is before you conceive. This helps prepare your body for the baby and alleviates some physical stress, as your body doesn't have to rush to compensate without nutrients available. Otherwise, a pregnant woman should begin taking a daily prenatal vitamin or multivitamin as soon as they realize they're pregnant.
Your healthcare provider may also recommend that you continue to take prenatal vitamins after delivery, especially if you plan on breastfeeding.
Do prenatal vitamins make you gain weight?
There is no evidence that prenatal vitamins make you gain weight. However, a healthy weight gain of about 25-35 pounds is a normal part of pregnancy. This is especially prevalent as you increase your caloric intake in the second and third trimester.
What happens if you don't take prenatal vitamins while pregnant?
It's possible that you won't get the vitamins and nutrients you need for a healthy baby without taking supplements. However, if you change your diet to increase your intake of the necessary vitamins, you can have a healthy pregnancy without ever taking supplements. Talk to your doctor to figure out what nutrition plan is right for you.
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The information provided is for educational purposes only and is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Seek the advice of a doctor with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never delay seeking or disregard professional medical advice because of something you have read here.