The needs of pregnant women change drastically , especially for vitamins and minerals. By design, prenatal vitamins meet the specific needs of pregnant women because vitamins and minerals play important roles in the health of your growing baby.
Ideally, the foods you eat provide all the vitamins and minerals you need, but it can be challenging to meet these, especially if you’re experiencing morning sickness. Some women may also need additional nutritional support to get pregnant or carry a pregnancy. Taking a prenatal vitamin helps cover any nutrients missing from your diet, setting you and your baby up for a healthy pregnancy .
It’s recommended any sexually active female who could become pregnant take a prenatal vitamin to help prevent complications if an unplanned pregnancy comes up. If you and your partner decide it’s time to start trying to get pregnant, it’s the perfect time to start taking a prenatal vitamin. “Ideally, [you] would start taking a prenatal vitamin one month before getting pregnant,” says Annemieke Austin, MD , a physician at Parsley Health.
Depending on your health status, you may also want to supplement with other beneficial nutrients. “Talk with your doctor about testing your homocysteine levels, vitamin D , and consider other nutrient testing before getting pregnant,” Dr. Austin recommends.
If your doctor recommends testing for these labs, it gives you time to correct any nutrient deficiencies before becoming pregnant . It may even help you become pregnant more quickly if you have a nutrient deficiency that affects fertility such as, folate, iron, or vitamin D. If you didn’t take a prenatal vitamin before becoming pregnant, start taking one when you can.
Having enough vitamins and minerals in your diet is important at any stage of life, especially when you’re trying to conceive or when pregnant. Here’s how they can help:
Vitamin and mineral deficiencies can impact hormone levels which in turn affect your fertility. Studies show taking a prenatal multivitamin helps restore healthy micronutrient levels and reduce oxidative stress.
A zinc deficiency , for example, could affect the early stages of egg development, so taking a supplement with zinc helps with healthy egg growth. Oxidative stress causes damage to cells in your body and reduces fertility in both males and females . Antioxidants work to reduce this damage by removing the free radicals that cause oxidative stress.
Vitamins A, C, and E, selenium, zinc, and copper are powerful antioxidants. These are included in prenatal vitamins and can help to lower oxidative stress. Taking a multivitamin won’t guarantee you’ll become pregnant, but it could increase your chances.
Research supports that women who took a prenatal vitamin were less likely to deliver:
Getting enough vitamins and minerals protects your health as well, like with calcium. If there isn’t enough calcium in your diet to support your baby’s growth, calcium is pulled out of your bones, leading to maternal bone loss . “Low calcium and vitamin D levels have been associated with adverse health outcomes in mother and child,” says Dr. Austin, “but it is unclear whether low levels are the causal factor or a marker of poor health.”
Vitamin D helps your body to absorb calcium. Still, it’s important for more than just helping calcium levels. Adequate vitamin D intake during pregnancy is important for the baby’s health for
Your vitamin A levels are also essential for your health because a vitamin A deficiency could lead to night blindness (trouble seeing in dim light or darkness). Anyone with a vitamin A deficiency can experience night blindness, but pregnant and lactating women are at a higher risk. Vitamin A also plays an important role in cell division, fetal growth, immune health, and both infant and maternal vision, explains Dr. Austin. During pregnancy, vitamin A needs increase by 20-30 percent to 800 µg per day .
The baby’s neural tube and spinal development happen in the first few weeks of pregnancy, usually before most women find out they are pregnant (hence, why taking a prenatal if you’re trying to conceive or could become pregnant is ideal.) Folate is a vitamin deficiency linked to neural tube defects. A supplement with folate (methyl folate) helps make sure your baby’s spinal cord and brain develop correctly.
Both choline and omega-3s are essential nutrients for the development of your baby’s brain. “Choline availability is crucial for the development of the central nervous system, with evidence of effects on cognitive function in infants,” says Dr. Austin.
A type of omega-3, docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), is “necessary for normal development of the brain and retina,” according to Dr. Austin. Fatty fish is the best source of DHA, but it’s “important women of childbearing age choose fish low in mercury and other contaminants,” like:
Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) is another type of Omega-3 fatty acid. During pregnancy, EPA helps to transport DHA and increase gene expression important for your baby’s developing brain cells. Studies show that taking a DHA and EPA supplement may lower the risk for preterm delivery.
You should always be mindful of which supplements you’re taking , but it becomes even more important when choosing a prenatal. In general, pharmaceutical-grade supplements are best, as they’re third-party tested, contain no fillers, dyes, or binders, and go through the same rigorous testing as pharmaceutical drugs. They’re also formulated to contain each ingredient’s most active and effective forms (which isn’t necessarily the case for prenatal vitamins you find at the grocery store). In general, look for prenatal vitamins with:
The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommends a supplement between 0.4 to 0.8 mg of folic acid at least one month before and during the first 2-3 months of pregnancy. For the rest of the pregnancy, 0.6 mg of folate is recommended.
Dr. Austin recommends sticking with methylated b vitamins (folate) over folic acid supplements . Folic acid is a synthetic version of folate that is often added to processed foods and supplements. Some people struggle to convert folic acid into an active form (folate), like those with an MTHFR gene mutation. If you don’t know your genetics, it’s safer to stick with folate supplements to ensure your body can use this important vitamin. According to Dr. Austin, “some higher-risk individuals need higher doses of folate, if [you’re] unsure, discuss with your doctor and consider taking a prenatal with 1 mg of folate.”
Look for a supplement with iron. Dr. Austin explains, “27 mg of iron is necessary for both fetal/placental development and to expand the maternal red blood cells.”
Your prenatal should have at least 250 mg of calcium. Says Dr. Austin, “fetal skeletal development requires approximately 30 grams of calcium during pregnancy, primarily during the last trimester.”
Fish is the primary dietary source for omega-3 fatty acids. Both DHA and EPA support your baby’s brain development. For women unable to consume fish, there are fish oil supplements or DHA supplements synthesized from algae. An intake of 200 to 300 mg per day of DHA/EPA is recommended, including both your food and supplement sources, says Dr. Austin.
Choline is often absent or low in prenatal vitamins, says Dr. Austin, but because it’s important for brain health, it’s best to find a prenatal that contains choline. It’s recommended to have 450 mg of choline per day during pregnancy. You can also work choline into your diet. Good sources of choline include eggs, meat and fish, dairy , navy beans, Brussels sprouts, broccoli, and spinach.
A prenatal vitamin should have a minimum of 200 to 600 international units (IUs) or vitamin D, explains Dr. Austin. Most prenatal supplements have at least 1000 IU, but the safe upper limit is still being studied to help understand vitamin D needs during pregnancy. The safe upper limit is currently set at 4000 IU.
“In addition to these [the above] key nutrients, pregnant women need to get adequate amounts of vitamins A, E, C, B vitamins, and zinc,” explains Dr. Austin. Talk with your provider for specific recommendations for your pregnancy. At Parsley Health , clinicians will also monitor your health through prenatal tests that ensure your prenatal vitamins are working and your lab work for other important markers during pregnancy look good.
Ashley Braun is a registered dietitian with her masters in public health. As a clinical dietitian, she worked with people to help them better understand their diet and medical conditions. Now as a health writer, Ashley has a passion for helping people understand complex health topics to make informed decisions about their health.