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Prenatal Vitamins. Should You Take Them? 101 Guide

It’s not exactly a secret that your body changes- a whole lot- during pregnancy. 

As your body suddenly becomes responsible for nurturing you and your growing baby, you experience a shift in nutritional needs. Though you might have survived fine on low iron and calcium intake before pregnancy, you can’t skimp on the essentials when a growing baby is relying on you. 

Prenatal vitamins are specifically formulated to give your body the full nutrient spectrum required to ensure a healthy pregnancy. The more you know about your options and their different benefits, the better you can plan for a healthy, rewarding pregnancy. 

The Most Important Ingredients For Pregnant Women

All vitamins and minerals are important, but the following four play an especially critical role in protecting your baby’s health and development.  

Iron- 30 mg

The body needs iron to produce hemoglobin, a component of red blood cells responsible for carrying oxygen throughout the body. Since your body supplies your baby with blood and oxygen during pregnancy, you need double the intake of iron to keep pace with this increase in demand for hemoglobin. 

Pregnant women and growing infants are extremely vulnerable to iron deficiency. Nearly one-quarter of all American women develop iron deficiency during pregnancy, so it’s essential to choose a prenatal vitamin that includes this nutrient. The complications caused by iron deficiency begin in your own body:

  • Fatigue
  • Weakness
  • Trouble focusing
  • Dizziness
  • Shortness of breath with rapid heartbeat
  • Poor circulation 

However, iron deficiency doesn’t just leave you feeling lousy. It also threatens the healthy development of your baby. If your growing infant doesn’t receive fresh supplies of oxygenated blood, dangers include low birth weight, premature birth, and increased risk of mortality. 

Calcium- 1,000mg

Calcium is another essential mineral during pregnancy. Your growing baby relies on the calcium in your body to build strong bones and teeth. If you don’t supplement with calcium, you put both you and your baby at risk of becoming calcium deficient. 

Some research even suggests that calcium deficiency causes more than weak bones and teeth. Studies show that calcium supplementation may reduce the risks of pre-eclampsia and preterm birth. 

Current guidelines recommend at least 1,000mg of calcium every day for pregnant women. If you don’t get much calcium from your diet, your prenatal vitamin is the best way to avoid the dangers of low calcium intake. 

Vitamin D- 600 IU

Vitamin D deficiency is a huge problem among all adults, but pregnant women are especially vulnerable to this health problem. Since vitamin D functions like a hormone to influence systems throughout your body, a lack of this vitamin triggers serious symptoms:

  • Fatigue
  • Weak immune system
  • Chronic pain
  • Depression
  • Bone and hair loss

You don’t want to experience those side effects at all, especially while pregnant! What’s more, vitamin D directly impacts the body’s ability to absorb calcium. This means that low vitamin D intake during pregnancy increases your risk of calcium deficiency as well. Luckily, one prenatal vitamin a day can fix this problem instantly. 

Folate- 400-800 mcg

You might hear the terms folic acid and folate used interchangeably in reference to prenatal vitamins. They’re both forms of vitamin B9, but one is better than the other for you and your growing baby. 

Vitamin B9  exists naturally as folate. It plays an invaluable role in the body by controlling cell growth and DNA formation. Babies who don’t receive enough folate during development are at higher risk of birth abnormalities and neural tube defects that lead to spina bifida and other serious complications. However, research shows that the simple act of taking a prenatal vitamin with folate can prevent two-thirds of neural tube defects. 

This may leave you wondering why most prenatal vitamins don’t list folate on the ingredients label. They include folic acid instead. Folic acid is a synthetic form of B9 that’s meant to serve the same purposes as folate. However, folic acid works slowly and often inefficiently. Unlike folate, which converts quickly into the active form of vitamin B9 before entering your bloodstream, folic acid doesn’t fully metabolize for use in the body. 

It’s worth the extra few dollars to find a prenatal vitamin with folate instead of folic acid. 

How to Find the Best Prenatal Vitamin Quality

A quick glance at any store’s prenatal vitamin selection reveals dozens of choices without a clear indication of the best choice. How can you sift through the noise to find a prenatal vitamin that gives your body the nutrients it needs to nurture a healthy, happy baby and pleasant pregnancy? 

Check The Ingredients Label

In addition to the “Big Four” ingredients listed above, make sure you find a prenatal vitamin that includes other vital nutrients, all of which serve their own important purposes:

  • Iodine – Supports thyroid and brain development
  • Vitamin B6 – Eases morning sickness
  • Zinc – Supports a strong immune system
  • Copper – Blood cell, nerve, and bone development
  • Vitamin C – Increases iron absorption

You may also want to consider choosing a prenatal vitamin that includes a bonus ingredient known as DHA or omega-3 fatty acid. This brain-boosting nutrient isn’t included in standard vitamins, but it’s shown to support brain development before and after birth. 

It’s also important to scan the ingredients label for vitamins that aren’t recommended in high quantities during pregnancy. Vitamin A and vitamin E are two culprits that sound great but can actually prove harmful to fetal development. 

Consider Natural, Organic, Whole-Food Vitamins

It’s all too easy to choose the cheapest prenatal vitamins on the shelf. After all, you’re eager to save money before your baby arrives. But when it comes to your pregnancy, it’s worth the extra money to find a reliable and effective prenatal vitamin. 

The cheaper options usually contain synthetic vitamins made to mimic naturally occurring vitamins. They may look and act the part, but they don’t offer the same results. You can find whole-food vitamins that contain 100% plant-based ingredients. These nutrients are readily absorbed and utilized by your body, and as an added bonus, they’re gentler on your stomach. 

When Should You Start Taking Prenatal Vitamins?

Are prenatal vitamins only for pregnant women? The quick answer is no. 

Prenatal vitamins give your body everything it needs to sustain a healthy pregnancy, so it’s ideal to begin taking them a few months before you start trying to conceive. Doing so prepares your body to properly nurture and support your baby the instant that you become pregnant. 

Early use of prenatal vitamins is especially important for vitamin D and folate since developments that occur during the first six or seven weeks of pregnancy rely strongly on those nutrients. 

If you’re not pregnant and have no plans to become pregnant, you could take prenatal vitamins safely, but they may not benefit above and beyond a standard multivitamin for women. 

The Bottom Line

The bottom line? Prenatal vitamins are essential to a healthy pregnancy, but you may need to do your own research to find the brand that best fits your needs. 

It can also help to gain a clearer understanding of your current fertility. Even if you’re currently on birth control, this at-home AMH Ovarian Reserve test will reveal your egg supply and offer insight into your ability to get pregnant. Armed with that information, you can plan how to best time your use of your prenatal vitamins.