Whether or not you are currently pregnant of hope to become so in the near future, the topic of prenatal vitamins has probably come up. While it seems like it would be a simple task to choose a prenatal vitamin, there is a lot of variety on the market which can make the task a bit more complicated. You may be wondering what nutrients are most important, why you need a supplement, and how to choose the right brand.
Keep reading to get these and other questions answered!
Why a prenatal vitamin is so important
It’s no secret that pregnancy is a unique and crucial time for optimal nutrition for both mom and baby. A woman’s nutrient needs increase significantly during pregnancy to help build the placenta & nourish her growing baby. These nutrients play an important role in ensuring proper fetal development, reducing the risk of birth defects and complications, and supporting your body both in labor and for breast milk production after birth.
You may be hoping that you can get all the nutrients you need from food alone. Yet unfortunately that is very hard to do, even for women who follow a healthy and balanced diet. Many factors play a role in increased nutrient needs in the body, making it very difficult to cover all the bases from diet alone. Therefore, taking a prenatal vitamin can help fill in any gaps in your diet to support the health of both your body and a developing baby.
What to look for in a prenatal vitamin
The nutrients in a prenatal vitamin benefit you and baby before, during, and even after pregnancy. It is a good idea to start taking a prenatal at least 3 months before planning to become pregnant, and continuing through breastfeeding or until you and your partner are done having kids.
Keep in mind that not every prenatal will contain exactly the same combination of nutrients*, but choosing a supplement that is in line with the following guidelines can help ensure proper health for you & baby.
- Folate– This is arguably the most important nutrient during pregnancy since it plays a crucial role in the baby’s brain and nerve health and helps prevent birth defects like spina bifida. Look for supplements that provide a minimum of 400 mcg, but closer to 800 mcg is even better.
*Many prenatal vitamins contain folic acid, which is a synthetic form of the vitamin. It is better for most people to choose the more natural form, which is also known as the “methylated” form, which is more usable for the body. Look for the word “methyl” in front of folate on the ingredients label (ie “methylfolate”).
- B12: Also plays a role in nervous system health and preventing anemia for both mother and baby. Like folate, this vitamin should ideally be in a methylated form for better absorption. Look for the word “methylcobalamin” in a supplement.
- B6: This is another essential B vitamin that plays a role in brain and nervous system development for babies. It is also essential to your body to convert food into energy and produce many brain chemicals called neurotransmitters. Vitamin B6 is also shown to help manage nausea and vomiting during pregnancy. A prenatal may contain between 2-10mcg, and more is usually better.
- Vitamin D3: There are 2 types of vitamin D used in supplements: D2 and D3. D3 is the most effective and usable form to raise blood levels and support yours and baby’s health. Look for prenatals that contain at least 1,000 IU of vitamin D3.
- Iron: This mineral helps protect against anemia, which can be serious and lead to less oxygen delivered to you or your baby. 27mg meets the total daily requirements during pregnancy.
- Calcium: Supports yours and your baby’s bone health in combination with vitamin D. Most prenatals will contain at least 150mg.
- Vitamin A: Important for fetal development of the eyes, ears, limbs, and heart. Look for at least 5,000 IU or 2,400mcg, usually in the form of beta carotene.
- Magnesium: This mineral is needed for so many reactions and processes in the body, and needs increase during pregnancy. Look for the forms of magnesium citrate or glycinate. Prenatals can contain anywhere from about 75mcg to 400mcg.
- Zinc: Pregnancy causes rapid cell growth which uses up zinc quickly, and zinc deficiencies during pregnancy may cause low birth weight, premature delivery and labor complications. The RDA for zinc during pregnancy is 11mg and a good prenatal should contain at least 8-10mg.
- Iodine: important for thyroid function which plays a role in baby’s development. 150mcg is a good amount for a prenatal.
*Pay close attention to the dosing size when selecting and taking a prenatal vitamin. Many brands will require taking at least 2 capsules with food as one dose, so be sure you are taking the right amount.
Should I be supplementing with anything else?
Eating well and taking a high-quality prenatal vitamin are the most important things you can do for you and your baby during pregnancy, but there are additional nutrients that may help further support yours and your baby’s health.
Two additional supplements you may want to consider supplementing with include:
- Omega-3 fatty acid: While all types of omega-3 fats are important, DHA is a specific type that is shown to be critical for brain, eye, immune and nervous system development in a growing fetus. In addition, DHA decreases throughout pregnancy in the mother as it is transferred to the fetus, so it is easy for a mother to become deficient. Most prenatal vitamins do not contain DHA, so supplementing is strongly recommended. While you can get some DHA from eating fish, the amount needed surpasses what is recommended for pregnant women to consume each week.
- Vitamin D3: While your prenatal will likely contain some of this important vitamin, studies have found that supplementing with ~4,000 IU of vitamin D daily had the greatest benefits in preventing preterm labor/births and infections, which is also backed by the American Pregnancy Association. It is always a good idea to get your blood levels checked before starting additional supplementation, though, and to coordinate with your doctor or other trusted healthcare provider for dosing specific to your needs.
Other important nutrients for pregnancy
The following aren’t required to be taken as a separate supplement, but are important and should at minimum be made sure that you are getting enough of them through your diet (they may or may not be included in your prenatal vitamin):
- Choline-Growing research is showing the importance of choline during pregnancy. Not all prenatals contain this, so if yours doesn’t, be sure to eat plenty of food sources such as egg yolks, meat, fish, and poultry.
- Selenium-An important antioxidant found in foods like nuts and seeds, seafood, eggs, and brown rice.
Hopefully this has helped answer your questions about choosing a prenatal vitamin that is best for you and your baby. It’s always a good idea to check with your doctor about all supplements you are taking. Taking the right supplements and following a healthy, balanced diet are two of the most important things you can do both for your body and for your future baby’s.