Pregnancy can place a huge toll on the body. Even completely normal and healthy pregnancies change your body. You can adjust to your body's changing needs by supplementing a healthy diet with the vitamins you and your baby need. Managing your prenatal vitamins can do everything from helping prevent birth defects to supporting a healthy growing baby.
What do prenatal vitamins do?
Prenatal vitamin benefits can vary from supporting your body to helping the development of the foetus. It's important for women of childbearing age who may get pregnant to know what their body needs to support a healthy pregnancy.
Prenatal supplements are meant to fill in the gaps that are hard to manage with a healthy diet alone. While it's usually ideal to get necessary nutrients from food over supplements, there are many reasons it might be difficult to do so. Expectantparents living without reliable access to grocery stores may struggle with access to nutritious food while vegetarian mothers may fall behind on protein and iron intake. Your midwife or GPr can advise you on the best prenatal vitamins for you based on your diet, habits, and needs.
Types of prenatal vitamins
There are a few vitamins that are commonly recommended to address the nutritional needs of expectant mothers. At the time of writing this article, these are the current recommended doses in the UK but it’s always best to check the most up-to-date guidance with your GP or midwife.
Folic acid is an important part of preventing neural tube defects (like spina bifida), which can seriously affect the baby's brain and spinal cord. It is recommended that you start taking folic acid three months before getting pregnant.
The NHS recommends that you take 400 micrograms of folic acid every day, ideally for 3 months before pregnancy, and up until you are 12 weeks pregnant. Some pregnancies will require a higher dose of folic acid (5 milligrams) which will need to be prescribed by your GP. Some reasons for this include if you or the biological father of the baby have a history of neural tube defects, if you have a raised BMI or if you have certain medical conditions. Your GP and midwife will be able to help you work out if you fall into one of these higher-risk categories to make sure you are taking the right dose so make sure you book an appointment before conception or as soon as you find out you’re pregnant to make sure you are on the right dose for you.1
As well as daily supplements, eating a diet rich in folate is also a good idea. This can include leafy green vegetables, fortified breakfast cereals and yeast extract. However, it can be tricky to meet all your folate needs in pregnancy by diet alone which is why supplements are so important.
Vitamin D is recommended for all pregnant and breastfeeding mothers. This is because it’s really common for people in the UK to have lower levels of vitamin D than they need. You should take 10 micrograms of vitamin D daily throughout this time.
Vitamin D is important for bones, teeth and muscles and as such, is important for your baby’s growth.
You can get vitamin D from some food like oily fish and eggs but, like folate, it can be difficult to get enough from diet alone.2
Iron can come in many forms, including leafy green vegetables, lean meat or nuts to name just a few. When iron levels drop during pregnancy, this can become a problem. This is why your iron levels will be monitored a few times as part of routine antenatal care to check they are not dipping. If so, you may be recommended to have an additional iron supplement in pregnancy.3
Calcium helps make your baby’s bones and teeth strong. There are many great sources of calcium in everyday food including milk, cheese and yoghurt among others.
Although many people don’t need a supplement for vitamin C during pregnancy, eating a balanced diet with vitamin C-containing food like oranges, red peppers and potatoes can help protect cells and with overall health. This vitamin also helps iron be absorbed!2
How to get prenatal vitamins for pregnancy
The best way to get the necessary prenatal vitamins is through a balanced diet. Since you already need to change your approach to nutrition during pregnancy, it's recommended that you talk to your doctor about foods to avoid or eat more of during pregnancy and track your new nutrition needs. This is especially important if you are following vegetarian, vegan or other specialised diets due to dietary or cultural needs as you may need to have extra dietary support during your pregnancy.
Another way you'll get prenatal vitamins is over-the-counter. Your doctor may advise you on which supplements you need for your particular situation, but most people won't need a prescription. Make sure any supplements you do take do not contain vitamin A (retinol) as too much vitamin A can cause harm to your baby so always double-check the labels. Some special cases may require prescription prenatal supplements, but your doctor will let you know if you need them.
What are the benefits of prenatal vitamins?
The benefits of taking prenatal vitamins vary based on what kinds of vitamins you're taking. Providing your body with the essential nutrients helps your baby during essential parts of development, including the development of their nervous system, bones, and brain.
Prenatal vitamin benefits can also extend to general comfort since they can help alleviate some of nausea associated with morning sickness. If you vomit frequently, it can also help replace the nutrients you lose.
Can you take prenatal vitamins without being pregnant?
Women who aren't pregnant can still benefit from the nutrients we’ve discussed above. . If you are trying to get pregnant, a daily folic acid supplement is recommended 3 months before conception and vitamin D is routinely advised for those living in the UK between September and March when we are exposed to less sunlight. In fact, some people are advised to take vitamin D all year round if they are more at risk of deficiency. Your GP will be happy to talk you through if this applies to you.4
What is in prenatal vitamins?
You can find prenatal vitamins in many combinations. There are individual supplements for specific nutrients as well as multivitamins that combine the common nutrient needs for pregnancy. Ask your doctor what the best prenatal vitamins for you are.
What are prenatal vitamins good for?
Prenatal vitamins help the baby’s development and encourage healthy growth during pregnancy. They also help keep you well!
When should you start taking prenatal vitamins?
If you're trying to get pregnant, the best time to take prenatal vitamins is before you conceive. This helps prepare your body for the baby.Otherwise, you should begin taking a daily prenatal vitamin or multivitamin as soon as you find out you’re pregnant.
Your healthcare provider may also recommend that you continue to take prenatal vitamins after delivery, especially if you plan on breastfeeding.
What happens if you don't take prenatal vitamins while pregnant?
It's possible that you won't get the vitamins and nutrients you need for a healthy baby without taking supplements. Talk to your doctor to figure out what nutrition plan is right for you if you have any questions or concerns.
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- RCOG, Healthy eating and supplements in pregnancy, published August 2022
- Tommy’s pregnancy hub, Vitamin D in pregnancy, published March 2021
- NHS, Vitamins, supplements and nutrition in pregnancy, published February 2022
- NHS, Vitamin D, published August 2020