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What are prenatal vitamins? Here’s what you need to know


If you’ve been researching how to get pregnant and have a baby, you might have come across the term ‘prenatal vitamins’. But what do vitamins have to do with pregnancy and prenatal care? Quite a lot, it turns out: the nutrients in them are essential for your baby’s growth and development. So here’s a guide to prenatal vitamins, including what they are, why you might take them, and when. (We promise this won’t be a tough pill to swallow… yep, pun intended.)

What are prenatal vitamins?

Prenatal vitamins are supplements designed for women who are trying to conceive and who are pregnant. They contain all the vitamins and minerals needed for a healthy pregnancy and your baby’s growth and development. (All of this in one pill. Who knew?).

What do prenatal vitamins do?

If you’re asking “ok, so what are the benefits of prenatal vitamins?”, read on, girl. There are three main things that prenatal vitamins can do for you and your little one. They can:

Help you get the nutrients you both need during pregnancy

The food you eat during pregnancy is your baby’s primary source of nutrients, and those nutrients help them grow. So your nutritional needs skyrocket. And while you may be eating well, it can be hard enough to get all of the nutrients you need, let alone sufficient amounts for your baby too. This is where prenatal vitamins come into play: they’re designed to supplement your diet to make sure you and your baby are getting all the lovely vitamins and minerals you require (and in one easy-to-pop pill at that).

Side note: prenatal vitamins are designed to supplement a healthy diet. They’re not intended to replace it. So keep filling your plate with lots of meat (or tofu!), seafood, vegetables, fruits, dairy products, and grains as these are all great sources of those nutrients you and your little one need. (While this might seem like a lot, remember that you are growing an entire human being, which requires a lot of extra energy, girl! Read more about healthy pregnancy weight gain here.)

Give you said nutrients in the recommended dose 

High doses of some vitamins and minerals can be harmful to your baby. But those handy little prenatal vitamins contain the recommended amounts of everything – talk about convenience. Yet, you’ve still got to be smart about your intake. While prenatal vitamins do contain the recommended dose of nutrients, if you take more than the advised amount of vitamins (e.g., four a day instead of two a day)… well, you do the math. Just stick to what the packet – or your doctor – says. 

Help you fall pregnant, to begin with

(Now we know you’re listening!) Research indicates that several of the nutrients found in prenatal vitamins may help with improved fertilization rate and a shorter time to pregnancy. Ok, then! If you want to know more about which nutrients are thought to help boost fertility, read our piece on the best fertility vitamins here.  

 

What’s in prenatal vitamins?

We’ve teased that specific vitamins and minerals are needed for a healthy pregnancy and your baby’s growth and development. So what are these? And are they all that’s in a prenatal vitamin? 

According to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, the essential nutrients you and your bébé require are:

  • Folic acid – supports your baby’s growth and helps prevent brain and spine defects.
  • Iron – assists your red blood cells to deliver oxygen to your baby. 
  • Calcium – builds strong bones and teeth. 
  • Vitamin D – helps promote healthy eyesight and skin, as well as bone and teeth growth.
  • Choline – essential for the development of your baby’s brain and spinal cord.
  • Omega-3 fatty acids – important for your baby’s brain development.
  • B Vitamins – help form red blood cells (the same ones that deliver oxygen to your baby), maintain the nervous system, and help your body use protein, fat, and carbohydrates.
  • Vitamin C – promotes healthy gums, teeth, and bones. 

In addition to these nutrients, a prenatal vitamin might also contain Vitamin A, iodine, magnesium, sodium, potassium, and zinc, which assist with everything from blood flow to brain development and help to prevent pregnancy or birth complications.  

When to start taking prenatal vitamins

You should start taking prenatal vitamins either once you decide to start trying for a baby or as soon as you find out you’re pregnant (because sometimes this stuff is a surprise). In terms of a specific timeframe, Planned Parenthood recommends you begin chowing down prenatal vitamins with folic acid (as a minimum) at least one month before trying to conceive. You might even begin earlier – another recommendation suggests you could start taking prenatal vitamins as soon as you stop using birth control to conceive. 

Taking prenatal vitamins as soon as you find out you’re pregnant seems obvious. But why would you take them beforehand if they’re designed for pregnancy? There are two reasons:

  1. It will give you time to build up a reserve of all those necessary nutrients, meaning you’re nourishment.com by the time you’ve got a baby living it up in your uterus.
  1. Often you don’t know you’re pregnant until six weeks in, but your baby’s neural tube (which becomes their brain and spine) starts to develop in the first four weeks of pregnancy. So ensuring you’ve upped your intake of those nutrients – and folic acid in particular – beforehand can help your little one get what they need even before you know they’re there.

And before you ask, can you take prenatal vitamins without being pregnant? Yes – especially if you’re trying to conceive. But, they contain high levels of certain nutrients that can lead to health problems over time, like constipation, nausea, and diarrhea. So unless you’re trying to conceive or are pregnant, it’s advised you leave prenatal vitamins alone. 

What are the best prenatal vitamins?

The best prenatal vitamins are those that contain the essential nutrients we mentioned above or that are tailored to your specific health and nutritional needs throughout pregnancy. 

You can buy prenatal vitamins over the counter at a pharmacy or online. But always read the label to make sure you know what they contain – remember you want prenatal vitamins with iron, folic acid, calcium, vitamin D, choline, omega-3 fatty acids, and B vitamins at the very least. Or, you might be prescribed prenatal vitamins by your doctor that contain a higher dose of specific nutrients. For example, if you’ve given birth to a baby with a neural tube defect, your doctor might suggest something containing additional folic acid. Your nutritional needs can change throughout pregnancy too, so your doctor may recommend adjusting certain vitamins as you progress. For example, your iron intake is particularly important during the third trimester of pregnancy as this is when your baby begins to build up their own iron stores. So if you’re low in iron, your doctor might prescribe you a specific vitamin to help supplement this. 

How to choose a prenatal vitamin

Hit the pharmacy or search online, and you’re likely to be swamped with lots of choices for prenatal vitamins for pregnancy. So here’s what you might do to choose a prenatal vitamin: 

  • Ask your family doctor, OB-GYN, or fertility doctor for a recommendation – they’ll be familiar with both your health history and what’s on the market to know what will work best for you.
  • Look for a brand that’s been recommended by a professional body – for example, Fairhaven Health and Nordic Naturals are endorsed by the American Pregnancy Association.
  • Or, you could speak to your health insurance company – some companies cover all or part of the cost of prenatal vitamins (hello, savings!).

Prenatal vitamins can be beneficial for both you and your baby’s well-being during pregnancy. But, we’re all different, and so are our health needs. So speak to your family doctor or medical professional if you have questions or concerns about prenatal vitamins, preconception, and pregnancy health.  


Read next: Pregnancy week by week: your first trimester


John Muir Health, Nutrition during pregnancy

Mayo Clinic, Prenatal vitamins: why they matter, how to choose

Mumli, Good foods to eat while pregnant: a guide to each trimester

American Pregnancy Association, Fairhaven Health

Schaefer E, Nock D. The Impact of Preconceptional Multiple-Micronutrient Supplementation on Female Fertility. Clin Med Insights Womens Health. 2019;12:1179562X19843868. Published 2019 Apr 23. doi:10.1177/1179562X19843868

American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, Nutrition during pregnancy

American Pregnancy Association, Prenatal vitamin ingredients

Planned Parenthood, What are prenatal vitamins?

VeryWell Family, What are prenatal vitamins?

Healthline, When should you start taking prenatal vitamins? Earlier than you think

Mayo Clinic, Is it OK to take prenatal vitamins if I’m not pregnant, and I don’t plan to become pregnant?

Nutrition Education Materials online team, Queensland Government, Iron for pregnant women

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