Prenatal vitamins play a vital role in a healthy pregnancy. I began taking prenatal vitamins before becoming pregnant. Still, for moms who have just found out that they’re pregnant, it’s important to begin taking a prenatal supplement as soon as you find out that you’re expecting.
A good prenatal vitamin should ideally be taken before conception, during pregnancy, and while breastfeeding (1-3). According to most physicians, the first trimester of pregnancy is a critical time for essential nutrients, as rapid cell division and the foundation of the internal organs and the central nervous system of your baby are developing.
By this time, women should eliminate alcohol from their daily routine and should be focusing on eating a well-balanced diet with plenty of veggies, fruit, and lean protein.
Unfortunately, many women may have trouble meeting their recommended daily intakes for certain vitamins and minerals, especially in the first trimester, when common morning sickness and nausea may be prevalent.
So, what should you do if you’re not sure you’re getting enough nutrients?
Adding a prenatal vitamin can help support both mom and baby during the first trimester and is a perfect way to fill in the nutrition gaps that accompany the first trimester (and beyond). Ideally, you should look for a good prenatal vitamin that is designed to carry moms and babies through preconception to pregnancy and into the weeks and months after delivery.
But there are many prenatal vitamins on the market, and it can be hard to know where to start . . .
What to Look for in a Good Prenatal Vitamin:
When it comes to prenatal vitamins, many women choose the lowest-cost option they can purchase over the counter. However, there are several benefits to taking a prescription prenatal vitamin instead of an over-the-counter generic.
First off, the U.S Food and Drug Administration (FDA) monitors and regulates pharmaceutical prenatal vitamins. This means that expecting mothers can rest easy knowing the quality of pharmaceutical-grade products.
If you’re worried about the cost – don’t fret. Prescription prenatal vitamins are often made more affordable through Medicaid coverage to women who would not have access to prenatal vitamins through other sources. Also, many prescription prenatal vitamins often offer savings coupons to help reduce the cost.
Iron supports the baby’s growth and development and may help prevent iron deficiency anemia in pregnant women (4,5). Many pregnant women experience iron deficiency anemia, notably during the third trimester – a particularly important time to maintain healthy iron levels as this is when the total demand for iron increases as maternal stores are drawn upon by the fetus (4,6). Be sure that your prenatal vitamin contains iron, in a relatively high absorbable form, to help limit stomach upset, nausea, or constipation.
Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) is an Omega-3 essential fatty acid (EFA) that may serve as a primary building block for the healthy development of the brain, eyes, cells, and nervous system (7-11). There is a concern, however, that DHA derived from large fish, including shark and swordfish, contains contaminants such as mercury and PCBs. Be sure that your DHA supplement is made with highly purified fish oil to help eliminate these concerns. Most prenatal vitamins do not include DHA, but it’s highly recommended to take an additional, pregnancy-safe fish oil supplement.
Folic acid, or folate, is one of the most essential nutrients you can take to protect the health of your baby. It may help lessen the risk of neural tube defects (NTDs), including spina bifida (1-3,12). To effectively raise folic acid levels to help protect from potential birth defects, women should ideally take folic acid daily for at least one month before conception, and daily while they are pregnant (1-3).
According to the NIH, folic acid supplementation may increase the likelihood of full-term births and lower the risk of preterm birth (1, 3, 12). Some women have a genetic predisposition that impairs proper metabolism of folic acid, so they require a form of folate that allows for absorption (3).
- Czeizel AE, Dudás I, Paput L, Bánhidy F. Prevention of neural-tube defects with periconceptional folic acid, methylfolate, or multivitamins? Ann Nutr Metab. 2011;58(4):263–271.
- Chidambaram B. Folate in pregnancy. Journal of Pediatric Neurosciences. 2012;7(2):81. doi:10.4103/1817-1745.102559.
- Greenberg JA, Bell SJ, Guan Y, Yu Y. Folic Acid Supplementation and Pregnancy: More Than Just Neural Tube Defect Prevention. Reviews in Obstetrics and Gynecology. 2011;4(2):52-59.
- Scholl TO. Maternal Iron Status: Relation to fetal growth, length of gestation and the neonate’s endowment. Nutrition reviews. 2011;69(Suppl 1):S23-S29. doi:10.1111/j.1753-4887.2011.00429.x.
- Raman TR, Devgan A, Sood S, Gupta A, Ravichander B. Low Birth Weight Babies: Incidence and risk factors. Medical Journal, Armed Forces India. 1998;54(3):191-195. doi:10.1016/S0377-1237(17)30539-7.
- Millman, N. Review Article: Oral Iron Prophylaxis in Pregnancy: Not Too Little and Not Too Much! Journal of Pregnancy. Volume 2012. Article ID 514345 doi:10.1155/2012/514345.
- Carlson S. Docosahexaenoic acid supplementation in pregnancy and lactation. Am J Clin Nutr. 2009; 89(Suppl):678–684.
- Greenberg JA, Bell SJ, Van Ausdal W. Omega-3 fatty acid supplementation during pregnancy. Rev Obstet Gynecol. 2008; 1(4)(Suppl):162-169.
- Cheruku SR, Montgomery-Downs HE, Farkas SL, Thoman EB, Lammi-Keefe CJ. Higher maternal plasma docosahexaenoic acid during pregnancy is associated with more mature neonatal sleep-state patterning. Amer J Clin Nutr. 2002; 76:608-613.
- Prescott SL, Barden AE, Mori TA, Dunstan JA. Maternal fish oil supplementation in pregnancy modifies neonatal leukotriene production by cord-blood-derived neutrophils. Clin Sci. 2007; 113:409–416.
- Jones ML, Mark PJ, Waddell BJ. Maternal dietary omega-3 fatty acids and placental function. Reproduction. 2014; 147:R143–R152.
- NIH. Dietary Supplement Fact Sheet: Folate. Office of Dietary Supplements, NIH Web site. https://ods.od.nih.gov/pdf/factsheets/Folate-HealthProfessional.pdf. Reviewed March 2, 2018. Accessed April 24, 2018.