What to Look for in a Prenatal Vitamin
Whether you have recently found out that you are pregnant or are just starting to consider the possibility, prenatal self-care can feel a lot more complicated. Everything you do now has implications for two (or more!).
The good news? A simple prenatal vitamin can help put your mind at ease. It’s one of the easiest and most effective ways to ensure you get the key vitamins and minerals needed to nourish your baby through a healthy pregnancy.
The First Step is to Start Now
Whether you’re pregnant, trying to conceive, or thinking about adding to your family, experts recommend starting to take a prenatal vitamin right away. By beginning early, you’ll help seed your body with the nutrients it needs for the earliest stages of fetal development. Here’s what you should know if you’re ready to take a prenatal vitamin for the first time.
The Anatomy of a Good Prenatal Vitamin
With a wide range of over-the-counter prenatal supplements to choose from, we recommend consulting with your healthcare provider about the ideal choice for you. In some cases, your doctor might even prescribe a prenatal vitamin based on your unique nutritional needs. If you’re starting to do your research, here are the key nutrients your doctor will likely recommend supplementing.
As you tour the ingredient label on any prenatal supplement, folic acid should be your first stop. This B vitamin helps the body make new cells and prevents congenital disabilities that affect a baby’s brain and spinal cord.
Folic acid’s role in fetal development is crucial, so the CDC recommends all women of reproductive age take at least 400 micrograms per day. Birth defects of the brain and spine, known as neural tube defects, usually occur during the earliest weeks of pregnancy, often before many women know that they are pregnant.
You will find that most over-the-counter prenatal supplements contain between 400 and 800 micrograms of folic acid. Sometimes, your provider may want you to take a little more, however any product with 1,000 micrograms of folic acid or more requires a prescription.
You may also see this vitamin listed as “folate,” a general term for vitamin B9. Folic acid is a synthetic version of folate that is more stable when exposed to heat and easily absorbed by the body.
Iron is a mineral that helps your body make blood cells that supply oxygen to your growing baby. It also helps prevent anemia, which occurs when your blood has too few healthy red blood cells. Your body needs more iron than usual during pregnancy because your total blood volume increases. The Mayo Clinic recommends supplementing with 27 milligrams of iron a day.
Developing babies need calcium for bone growth. If you’re not getting enough, your own bone density could suffer. The general guideline is to take 1,000 milligrams per day while pregnant or nursing, which is the equivalent of three to four servings of dairy. Calcium can also be found in greens like spinach and broccoli. If you’re concerned that you’re not getting enough calcium in your diet, be sure to look for this mineral in your prenatal supplement.
Vitamin D helps with calcium absorption and bone growth. The Mayo Clinic recommends that you get 600IUs of Vitamin D per day.
Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Omega-3 fatty acids include docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA). These essential fats support heart and neurological health. DHA, in particular, is known to support fetal brain development.
While dietary sources like fatty fish are the best source of omega-3’s, this can present an issue if you want to limit fish consumption while pregnant. Some fish contain high levels of mercury, which can impair brain development in babies. For that reason, researchers at the Women's and Children's Health Research Institute advise that you take the recommended 200 milligrams of DHA a day in supplement form.
Other Essential Nutrients
The Mayo Clinic also suggests looking for a prenatal vitamin that includes vitamins C, A, and E; B vitamins; zinc; and iodine. Penn Medicine created this helpful chart to find the recommended daily allowance while you’re pregnant or lactating, but it’s important to consult with your doctor about your needs.
The Mayo Clinic cautions against taking extra doses of your prenatal vitamin or doubling up on multivitamins as this could be harmful to your baby. You should always take your prenatal vitamins as directed by your doctor. If you forget to take a dose, don't worry, there is no need to double up. Just take your next dose at your regularly scheduled time.
A quality prenatal vitamin combined with a healthy, balanced diet is the best way to ensure your body and growing baby get all the nutrients they need. Talk with your healthcare provider to develop a plan to eat well and supplement your nutrition before and during pregnancy.
Possible Side Effects
Prenatal vitamins pack a powerful punch, which can make them tough to stomach for some people. The iron in prenatal vitamins can cause constipation, so it helps to drink plenty of fluids, get physical activity daily (if your healthcare provider gives you the okay), and eat more fiber. If constipation becomes a problem, talk with your doctor. Trying another form of iron or a stool softener can help with constipation.
Some people become nauseous when taking vitamins. If you’re already feeling queasy during your pregnancy, this can present a significant hurdle. Try taking your prenatal vitamin with a meal and experiment with different times of the day. Some people cut their pill in half and take one piece in the morning and the other at night. You might also consider trying a different vitamin brand as each will vary in size, shape, and smell. A gummy, chewable, or liquid option might provide a more palatable option as well.
If you just can’t seem to stomach your daily pill, don’t give up on your prenatal completely. Your healthcare provider can help you find a solution that won’t sacrifice your nutritional needs.
A Note on Dietary and Herbal Supplements
The Mayo Clinic recommends that you do not use additional nutritional or herbal supplements during pregnancy. The FDA does not review dietary supplements for safety and effectiveness, and some ingredients could be harmful during pregnancy.
The Mayo Clinic notes that one possible exception is ginger, which has been shown to help with nausea and is safe for pregnancy.
If you are considering taking any supplements, always talk with your healthcare provider first. And remember that supplementation—your prenatal vitamin included—should not replace a well-balanced diet full of healthy vegetables and fruits.
Easy Does It
Think of your prenatal vitamin like any medication—more isn’t necessarily better. Stick with the recommended daily dose unless your doctor advises a more significant boost or suggests additional supplements.
If your doctor recommends a prescription prenatal, you can have the prescription sent straight to Alto, and we’ll hand-deliver it to your home for free. Plus, our pharmacists will only be a phone call, text message, or in-app chat away if questions come up. You’ve likely got plenty on your mind right now, so allow us to handle all the details of your medication needs.
This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or another qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.