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Making Sense of Prenatal Vitamins: The Essential Nutrients You Need

Posted by Alexandra Porto on

Growing a life inside of you is a lot harder than it looks, and nutrients play a significant role in the process. Eating healthy is key, but sometimes your body needs an extra boost to get all the minerals essential to your baby's development. This is where prenatal vitamins come in.

Vitamins fill in the gaps to give your baby nutrients that your diet isn't fully providing. Whether you chew a gummy, swallow a capsule, or whip up a vitamin smoothie, this one act can greatly impact your pregnancy. It protects not only you but also your baby's health. There's a reason so many doctors recommend starting prenatal vitamins as soon as you are trying to conceive.

But, how do you figure out which prenatal vitamins are best? With so many on the market, it can be overwhelming. We're here to break it all down so you know what minerals and daily doses to look for when checking your bottle's label. Plus, we've picked five of the most popular brands that cover these essentials.

Prenatal vitamins

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Why Are Prenatal Vitamins So Important?

Your fetus' brain and spinal cord, known as its neural tube, develops in your first month of being pregnant, often before you even know you are pregnant! Crucial developments like this happen in your first 12 weeks of pregnancy and are heavily impacted by nutrients.

Taking a prenatal vitamin lowers the chances of congenital disabilities and pregnancy complications. Some studies have even shown that taking prenatal vitamins before you conceive can lessen morning sickness symptoms later. And who wouldn't want to give that a try?!

Start Taking Them as Soon as You are Trying to Conceive

It might sound strange to start taking a prenatal vitamin before becoming pregnant, but it's perfectly normal and highly recommended by OB-GYNs. Ideally, experts say to take them three months before conception. Since we can't really know how long it'll take to conceive, it's always good to start one as soon as you decide to try for a baby.

Check your prenatal vitamins to see what the recommended daily serving is, and take that amount every day for the entire length of your pregnancy. You'll want to continue past when your baby is born or switch to a postnatal vitamin if you are breastfeeding too.

As you progress in your pregnancy, your OB-GYN might write you a vitamin prescription if they think you could benefit from an extra supplement. Speak to your doctor about concerns, especially if you have a history of vitamin deficiencies or are on a restrictive diet. They will run bloodwork and make personalized recommendations for you and your growing baby.

Take prenatal vitamins as soon as you try to conceive

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Not All Prenatal Vitamins are Created Equally

The FDA doesn't regulate vitamins, so there can be a lot of variants in quality and nutritional value, which might not be immediately apparent. Look for products verified by third-party organizations like the Council for Responsible Nutrition. If your doctor has recommended a specific brand or dose, go with their suggestion.

While you can buy prenatals over-the-counter without a prescription, you might want to ask for one anyway or get a letter of medical necessity. This can come in handy if you have insurance, an FSA, or an HSA that covers prenatal vitamins; double-check your plan's benefits and requirements.

Below is a general guideline for the vitamins, doses, and impact they have on your baby's development. Use this as a guide, but always take your doctor's advice first since they see you regularly.

Stick to the recommended daily intake and avoid taking extra doses. Sometimes this can negatively affect your pregnancy, especially when it comes to preformed vitamin A. Read the labels carefully and supplement any necessary minerals where your vitamin is lacking. Because trust us, it's challenging to find one pill that truly has it all.

Also, don't get hung up on consumption type. Gummies, tablets, powders, or capsules are fine as long as they have the proper nutrients in the recommended quantities you need. The form is based on your lifestyle and preferences, so pick one you won't mind taking every day.

The nutrients that matter most

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Essential Nutrients to Look For

Just staring at the vitamin aisle can be enough to make you want to give up. Talk about choice overload. Forget the colorful packaging and marketing jargon for a moment, and turn that bottle over to its nutritional label. Here are the vitamins that the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists and other trusted sources say to look out for:

1. Folic Acid: 600 micrograms

The most critical nutrient is folic acid. This supports the growth of your fetus and placenta, minimizing birth defects of the neural tube (the brain and spine). Pregnant women need 600 micrograms of folic acid or folate in their diet each day. It is usually difficult to get enough through food alone, so most daily vitamins have at least 400 mg of this supplement.

2. Iron: 27 milligrams

Next up is iron, another essential vitamin that supports the fetus and placenta. Iron helps produce red blood cells that carry oxygen to your baby. It also helps prevent anemia. Most women need 18 mg of iron even when not pregnant; this increases to 27 mg once you conceive.

Check your prenatal vitamin label carefully. Several do not contain iron, so it's important to take a separate supplement if it's missing from your preferred brand.

3. Calcium: 1,000 milligrams for ages 19 to 50

Bones are the body's foundation, and nothing builds strong teeth and bones like calcium; not getting enough calcium while pregnant can even impact your dental health. If you aren't big on dairy in your diet, you'll need this supplement. Many prenatal vitamins don't contain the total recommended daily value of calcium so add it separately if necessary.

Calcium & Vitamin D3 build healthy bones

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4. Vitamin D3: 600 international units

Consider Vitamin D as calcium's sidekick. Together, they ensure healthy bones and teeth. Vitamin D also helps your baby's skin and eyesight development. Some studies even link Vitamin D deficiencies to pregnancy complications like gestational diabetes or preeclampsia, so it's important not to skip this vitamin. Even when not pregnant, 600 IUs daily are recommended for all women. More is needed when breastfeeding too.

5. Omega-3 Fatty Acids: 200 milligrams

Omega-3 fatty acids are essential nutrients that the body can't produce on its own. They help promote a healthy nervous system, brain, and eyes. The most necessary forms while pregnant are Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA); these are good fats that are critical to fetal development. Some prenatal vitamins might contain Omega-6 arachidonic acid (ARA) as a bonus too.

6. Choline: 450 milligrams

It's hard to find a prenatal vitamin containing the full daily dose of choline, but it's worth scanning those labels. This lesser-known vitamin plays a big role in your baby's brain and spinal cord growth and helps prevent birth defects.

Vitamin C boosts the immune system

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7. Vitamin C: 85 milligrams for ages 19-50

Vitamin C is one of the best-known vitamins for boosting the immune system. For pregnant moms, this is a big plus. It also aids your baby's bone and muscle development, supports healthy gums, and promotes collagen production.

8. Vitamin B: B12 - 2.6 micrograms, B6 - 1.9 milligrams

B vitamins assist in forming your baby's red blood cells, brain, eyesight, and nervous system and prevent congenital deficiencies like spina bifida. B6 aids in the metabolism of carbs and proteins, while B12 gives Mama extra energy and helps build the placenta.

9. Iodine: 220 micrograms

Another essential to look for in your prenatal vitamin is iodine. It regulates the thyroid gland and promotes healthy brain development. This nutrient is important even after your baby is born, with 290 micrograms daily being the recommended dose if breastfeeding.

10. Zinc: 12 milligrams

While most women get enough zinc through their diet, some prenatal vitamins might include this important mineral. It supports healthy cells and DNA in your baby, and some studies even say it can prevent preterm births. For moms, it also helps boost your immune system.

Vitamin A helps your baby's development

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11. Vitamin A: 770 micrograms for ages 19 to 50

Vitamin A plays an essential role in embryonic growth, helping everything from your baby's heart, lungs, and kidneys to their ears, eyes, and bones. Like zinc and vitamin C, it also supports your immune system and has even been linked to improved postpartum recovery.

Most women get enough vitamin A from their diets, but a supplement might be needed to meet the recommended daily dose. Prenatal vitamins use the safer beta-carotene version since too much preformed vitamin A above 10,000 IU can be toxic. For this reason, you should not exceed recommended doses.

While not as common as the nutrients listed above, you might also find biotin, boron, riboflavin, copper, magnesium, niacin, ginger, vitamin K2, or thiamin in your prenatal vitamins. Remember that these supplements are meant to enhance a healthy diet and fill in the gaps of missing nutrients. Pay close attention to what you're eating and consult your doctor for vitamin recommendations tailored to your pregnancy.

You Might Experience These Common Side Effects

Frequent complaints about prenatal vitamins are nausea and constipation. The likely culprit here is iron. It is known for causing these symptoms in some women. To counteract this, drink a lot of water, add more fiber to your diet or take a separate fiber supplement.

You might also want to switch your prenatal vitamin brand or form from a capsule to a powder or gummy. If the side effects become too frequent or uncomfortable, speak to your doctor for advice.

What prenatal vitamins should you choose?

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Some of the Most Highly Recommended Prenatal Vitamins

Every pregnancy journey is different, so what works best for you might not work out so well for another Mama. When selecting your prenatal vitamin, think about what you eat and what might be missing from your diet. You'll also want to consider your medical history and listen to advice from your doctor. Choose the vitamin form that fits your lifestyle; also consider cost, ease of purchasing, the quantity in one bottle, and the daily serving amount.

Here are a few top brands that keep cropping up on doctors' recommended lists:

1. One-a-Day Prenatal1 Complete Multivitamin: 

This prenatal vitamin is pretty comprehensive and includes all vitamins listed but doesn't reach the full calcium recommendation, so that would require a separate supplement. It's affordable and comes in one easy-to-take daily capsule.

2. Honest Prenatal Vitamin:

The Honest Co.'s vitamins are favorites of Mamas experiencing morning sickness. Their capsules are coated in vanilla and mixed with ingredients like ginger and papaya to settle the stomach. They are organic and filled with the essential minerals you need.

3. SmartyPants Prenatal Gummy:

If you aren't into swallowing pills, a gummy vitamin like these lemon, orange, and strawberry-banana ones might be just what you want. Its daily serving of 6 gummies has folic acid and most other recommended vitamins. But gummy forms like iron and calcium, so you'll likely need to supplement those separately.

4. Ritual Essential Prenatal Multivitamin:

If you don't like having to remember to purchase your vitamins each month, Ritual's subscription is a convenient option. It packs key nutrients into a high-quality, vegan, lemon-infused capsule that eases nausea.

5. Needed Prenatal Multi Powder:

Needed's powdered supplement is perfect if you prefer to mix your vitamins into a smoothie or morning latte. Unlike many other prenatals, it has 100% of your daily choline needed and covers most other bases too. Take one scoop and mix it into your preferred drink or food for a convenient way to get your vitamins each day.

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