As the supplement industry continues to grow in tandem with a health-conscious public, prenatal vitamins hold their ground as some of the most supported supplements available.
There are many health considerations during pregnancy, but taking vitamins, along with proper prenatal care, are among the most crucial steps expectant mothers can take to ensure a healthy baby.
“It’s important for pregnant women to see their obstetrician by six to eight weeks, so their prenatal care can be optimized early on in their pregnancy,” said Dr. David Kartzinel, M.D., of Sunrise Children’s Hospital.
“It’s necessary to discuss any pre-existing medical conditions the mother might have or any medications she might be taking that could be potentially harmful.”
It’s also important to go over nutrition, what foods to avoid during pregnancy and to make sure the mother is well hydrated.
“An ultrasound at 18 weeks is vital, too, because it allows us to check for any deformities or abnormalities in the heart, lungs, or brain,” Kartzinel said. “For women over 35, prenatal care will also include necessary genetic counseling.”
While the spectrum of prenatal care is vast, prenatal vitamins continue to be an integral part of the equation.
The essential ingredients to a prenatal vitamin
Several studies have attributed the use of prenatal vitamins to a healthy birth weight. Many key ingredients found in supplements are essential to a baby’s health. The vitamins and minerals that compose prenatal vitamins are specifically tailored to the needs of a developing fetus.
Suggested amount: 17 mg/day*
Iron helps support red blood cell function, which delivers oxygen to the body through blood. During pregnancy, the amount of blood in a woman’s body increases to accommodate the developing fetus, and women need more iron to sustain the influx of red blood cells.
“Pregnant women are likely to become anemic because of the extra blood supply used to nourish the fetus, so taking extra iron is key,” Dr. David Kartzinel said.
Many women have insufficient iron stores when they begin their pregnancy, and during pregnancy, they require twice the normal amount of iron, which is more than most women can get from diet alone.
Many women have insufficient iron stores when they begin their pregnancy and during pregnancy they require twice the normal amount of iron, which is more than most women can get from diet alone.
Suggested amount: 200-300 mg/day*
Calcium is necessary for bone and teeth formation, nerve and muscle function and blood clotting.
Calcium is important throughout pregnancy but especially during the third trimester when bones are developing and strengthening. If a woman doesn’t consume an adequate amount of calcium during her pregnancy, her body will draw calcium from her bones to supply the fetus, which can reduce bone density in the mother.
Though many women receive the recommended amount of calcium through a nutritious diet, women who are lactose intolerant or choose not to eat dairy should supplement their calcium intake.
Suggested amount: 400 mcg/day*
Folic acid is a critical element for fetal development. It is especially necessary during the first 28 days of pregnancy, when many women may not know they’re pregnant.
“If a woman is even thinking about getting pregnant, she should be taking folic acid,” Kartzinel said. “In fact, the recommendation is that any woman who is not taking birth control should be taking folic acid if there is a possibility she could become pregnant.”
Folic acid has been shown to protect against a multitude of congenital disorders and significantly decreases brain and spine defects. It is essential to a fetus’ developing nervous system and aids in the formation of vital organs.
“Folic acid is extremely important and needs to be on board as early as possible during a pregnancy,” Kartzinel said.
* These are suggested quantities but be sure to consult your doctor. Certain health conditions and body types require different treatment.
What about those other nutrients?
The additional vitamins and minerals found in prenatal supplements are similar to those found in regular multivitamins.
How long should I take them?
Women should take a folic acid supplement or a prenatal vitamin before conceiving and continue taking them throughout the pregnancy and while breastfeeding.
Potential side effects
Prenatal vitamins are unlikely to cause any serious side effects, but they can potentially be a source of discomfort.
“For some women, iron can cause some constipation, nausea and an upset stomach,” Dr. David Kartzinel said. “Prenatal vitamins can also cause some women to feel generally unwell. Usually, I find it is easily remedied by switching the vitamin around, from different formulations and different brands, until a woman finds one she can tolerate.”
Other important considerations
Becoming dehydrated during pregnancy, which is especially likely in Las Vegas, can have serious consequences on the baby. “Believe it or not, babies really don’t need that much food to grow, but if a mother goes more than two or three days without having water, it can be very clinically significant to the developing baby,” said Kartzinel. Ten or more glasses of water daily is a safe bet to remain hydrated, and during summer months women might need more.
A nutritious diet that is rich with fruits, vegetables, and lean proteins is necessary during pregnancy. While prenatal vitamins cannot substitute a well balanced diet, they can act as a fall back when women are not eating as well as they should.
“With the exception of folic acid and iron, many of the vitamins and minerals found in prenatal supplements are accounted for in a well balanced diet, but many women don’t have the opportunity to eat nutritious meals all the time,” said Kartzinel.
For women who are eating a healthy diet, most of the excess vitamins and minerals from the prenatal vitamins will be secreted, so there is no harm in doing both. Prenatal vitamins will simply help guarantee there are no nutritional lapses.
It is very important that women continue their fitness routine over the course of their pregnancy. Low impact cardiovascular exercise is the best for pregnant women, though some light weight-training is fine too.
“I think that swimming is the best exercise for pregnant women. It’s easy on their joints, it makes their back feel better and it’s cardiovascular, so it helps with blood flow,” said Kartzinel.
Other good low impact options include walking, biking on a machine, and yoga.
An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified the dosage for folic acid as 400 mg. The correct dosage is 400 mcg.