- The difference between prenatal vitamins and other supplements
- Common vitamins that are supplemented for pregnancy and why
- When to take prenatal vitamins
- What happened when women don’t take prenatals
- Notes and additional considerations when considering prenatal vitamins
What to expect when expecting is the first question people ask when faced with a pregnancy, particularly first-time parents. Among the many questions that come to the forefront are concerns about diet, accessible nutrients, and whether supplementation is a useful solution. We’ll take a look at the role of prenatal vitamins during pregnancy. More specifically, we’ll take a close look at the purpose of prenatal supplements and what can happen if women don’t take prenatal vitamins during pregnancy.
What is the purpose of prenatal vitamins?
The short answer is that prenatal vitamins ensure the mother and the baby are as healthy as possible. They help to reduce the risk of complications during pregnancy, congenital disabilities, and vitamin deficiencies that can lead to more severe conditions for both the mother and the baby, either during or after pregnancy.
What is the difference between prenatals and daily vitamins?
Men and women often choose to take supplements in one form or another, depending on their personal goals and circumstances.
For example, women who have a family history of osteoporosis or who have been on the injectable birth control, progesterone, for more than two years, might be advised by their physician to take calcium as a daily supplement.
If someone has a vitamin deficiency of any kind will likely be given a prescription vitamin until their levels are normalized.
Vitamins are recommended for specific circumstances and health concerns. Prenatal vitamins are advised for the particular needs of a pregnant body.
Specifically, prenatal vitamins address the increase in the daily recommended allowance (RDA) for pregnant women.
Several nutrients have a higher RDA during pregnancy. However, some of the most commonly addressed vitamins are calcium, folic acid, and iron because of how consistently they lack in the proper amounts from pregnant women’s diets and their crucial role in the health of mother and baby.
We’ll cover these three vitamins, but women who are pregnant or trying to conceive should discuss diet, nutrition, and supplements with their physicians to get a more holistic, personalized sense of their bodies’ needs.
Calcium vitamins during pregnancy
Calcium is one of the essential nutrients for pregnancy. It helps ensure that muscles and nerves function properly, as well as their expected role in growing strong, healthy bones.
A pregnant body will use whatever resources it can to prioritize the growth and development of the baby. That priority includes stealing calcium from the mother’s bones and teeth.
Prenatal vitamins will typically contain 200-300 milligrams of calcium. Pregnant women need at least 1,000 milligrams of calcium, so it’s crucial that they increase their calcium intake with calcium-rich foods, such as orange juice, tofu, kale, bok choy.
Those who are lactose intolerant or vegan may want to discuss options with their doctor, such as increasing their daily dose of prenatal vitamins or switching to prescription vitamins during the crucial months when their body needs it most.
Folic acid during pregnancy
Folic acid, also known as vitamin B-9 or folate, has a crucial role in preventing common congenital disabilities. Most notably, it reduces the risk of neural tube defects during the first month of pregnancy, a cause of spina bifida (a birth defect that occurs when the spine and spinal cord don’t form properly) and anencephaly (a birth defect in which a baby is born without parts of the brain and skull).
Many multivitamins contain folic acid; however, because of its role in pregnancy and proper development of the fetus, prenatal vitamins guarantee a higher dosage.
Prenatal vitamins will often have approximately 400 micrograms of folic acid, the recommended daily allowance.
However, they are also encouraged to eat fortified foods to ensure they get enough folate every day. Fortified foods include some breads, corn, and masa flour. Pregnant women may also get folate from dark leafy greens, particularly spinach, some nuts, peas, and other vegetables.
Iron during pregnancy
Iron is a common supplement in one-a-days, multivitamins, and prenatal vitamins. While many people get enough iron from their diet, it’s a common deficiency. Though significantly higher in developing countries, iron is also one of the most common deficiencies in the developed world.
Iron is crucial during pregnancy to reduce the risk of anemia and lower the risk of low birth weight, premature delivery, postpartum depression, and infant death, either before, during, or after delivery.
The recommended daily allowance (RDA) of iron for women who are not pregnant is approximately 18 milligrams. During pregnancy, this increases to 27 milligrams. Prenatal vitamins can ensure those additional nine milligrams are accounted for each day.
For those who also want to increase their intake of iron-rich foods during pregnancy, be sure to select iron-rich sources that are safe for pregnant women. This is especially important for women who are focused on a plant-based diet. Some iron-rich foods include beans, fortified grains, dark green vegetables, and some fruits.
When should a woman start to take prenatal vitamins?
While every woman should consult with their physician regarding health decisions and pregnancy, including the decision to take vitamins, the generally accepted advice is to begin taking prenatal vitamins about three months before trying to conceive.
By taking prenatal vitamins three months before trying to get pregnant, a woman will increase her chances of getting pregnant because her body will be ready. Her reproductive system, such as her eggs that develop 90-days before being released, will be at optimal health.
By getting an early start on prenatal vitamins, women will already have the dietary habits they need for a healthy baby and safe pregnancy. This is especially true during the crucial first few weeks of pregnancy.
What happens if prenatal aren't taken in the first trimester?
Those who weren’t able to plan three months in advance, simply consult with a physician as early as possible and follow their advice to take prenatal vitamins as soon as they realized they are pregnant.
Folic acid, in particular, is especially crucial during the few weeks of pregnancy. It helps to prevent common and significant congenital disabilities.
Doctor opinions differ regarding the level of urgency and prenatal vitamins during the first trimester. Many pregnant women suffer from morning sickness and find that prenatal vitamins will aggravate their upset stomach and nausea.
In this case, doctors will help their patients decide whether to continue taking prenatal vitamins and add an anti-nausea medication to their regimen. In some cases, doctors are comfortable with women skipping prenatal vitamins during the first trimester as long as they are diligently watching and balancing their diet while getting enough nutrients from plenty of healthful foods.
Once morning sickness has passed, most doctors advise that pregnant women return to taking prenatal vitamins. Some will even recommend that prenatals are taken after pregnancy while they are breastfeeding.
That said, if a woman will be taking additional vitamins after pregnancy, there is a postnatal regimen that some may opt for instead.
What happens if pregnant women don't take prenatal vitamins during pregnancy?
LFor women in developed countries who live above the poverty line and are able to invest in a high-quality, nutrient-dense diet, prenatal vitamins may not be as necessary as other women with fewer opportunities and limited access.
Not only do women need access to all the quality and varieties of food they will need, but they will also need access to information so they can adequately educate themselves. Additionally, access to quality medical care to navigate specific uncertainties and personal health questions is vital.
For women who lack information, quality medical care, and access to the quantities of quality food that they’ll need throughout the pregnancy process, vitamins will be crucial. This need for prenatal vitamins is especially true of women who live in rural areas, below the poverty line, or in developing countries.
Beyond the conversation about access and resources, women who don’t take prenatal vitamins may be at risk of an unsafe pregnancy, or they may place the baby in danger of congenital disabilities and a number of debilitating lifelong conditions, such as those mentioned previously.
Final notes about prenatals and other supplements
It may now be clear that prenatals are a vital consideration for women, not only during pregnancy, but prior to trying to get pregnant, and even after pregnancy while breastfeeding. There are a few important reminders for those who are new to the prenatal vitamin discussion.
Always check with the doctor
It’s advisable always to inform your physician when taking any medications or supplements, even if they are over-the-counter. By keeping them in the loop, patients will have one more person watching for the right test values, looking out for interactions, and addressing complications. Plus, when a doctor is included as a partner in health, they will be able to offer personalized advice based on their patient’s health and individual needs. A doctor can help their patients choose the right nutrients to supplement the right amounts for an individual’s body and lifestyle and adjust other medications to compensate for a rapidly changing pregnant body.
The same goes for those who choose not to take prenatals. A doctor can help their patient decide whether a different time of day or different vitamins might be better or help monitor for deficiencies so the patient can make informed decisions.
Supplements are in addition to, not a replacement
Consider vitamins to be a supplement, not a substitute. A prenatal isn’t meant to replace an unhealthy diet. Prenatals are formulated to enhance an already healthy diet. They also don’t replace quality exercise, hydration, mental health best practices, and an effort to live an overall healthful lifestyle.
Quality is a factor
It can be tough to decide which prenatals to take, or any vitamins for that matter. There are multitudes of brands and varieties of claims throughout the shelves of every drugstore, health food store, and across the internet.
With vitamins of any kind, including prenatal vitamins, be sure to choose the highest quality available. This includes vitamins and supplements that are produced to the highest standards in FDA approved facilities. They may also be plant-based, non-GMO, and free from fillers and artificial ingredients. For those with dietary restrictions, there are also supplements that are gluten-free, lactose-free, and gentle on sensitive stomachs.
While a doctor can assist in decisions about when and how often to take the right vitamins, anyone looking to supplement their diet, particularly pregnant women, will want to consider ways to optimize their nutrient absorption.
High-quality supplements will already have high bioavailability. However, for those who have trouble with digestion or whose bodies aren’t functioning at optimal levels, they may find they aren’t getting the most out of their vitamins.
For example, some may choose to take digestive enzyme supplements to ensure their guts are working at full potential and digesting nutrients, whether vitamins or whole foods. Those who are pregnant will want to continue to discuss these choices with their physician, but there are benefits worth considering when designing a custom vitamin and supplement regimen.
Daily Recommended Allowance (RDA): https://www.fda.gov/consumers/womens-health-topics/pregnancy
- Calcium: https://www.webmd.com/baby/get-the-calcium-you-need-during-pregnancy#1
- Foods that contain calcium: https://americanpregnancy.org/naturally/where-to-get-calcium-naturally-during-pregnancy/
Folic acid: https://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/folicacid/about.html
- Neural Tube Defects: https://medlineplus.gov/neuraltubedefects.html
- Spina Bifida: https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/spina-bifida/symptoms-causes/syc-20377860
- Aanencephaly: https://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/birthdefects/anencephaly.html
- Foods that contain folate: https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/Folate-HealthProfessional/
- Global problem of iron deficiency: https://www.who.int/nutrition/topics/ida/en/
- Anemia: https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/iron-deficiency-anemia/symptoms-causes/syc-20355034
- Risks of anemia during pregnancy: https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/pregnancy-week-by-week/in-depth/anemia-during-pregnancy/art-20114455
- Iron RDA: https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/Iron-HealthProfessional/
- Pregnancy-safe iron-rich foods: https://www.ucsfhealth.org/education/anemia-and-pregnancy
- Take prenatals 3-months before trying to conceive: https://www.premamawellness.com/blogs/blog/8-reasons-you-need-a-prenatal-before-trying-to-conceive
- Morning sickness: https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/morning-sickness/symptoms-causes/syc-20375254
- Taking prenatals while breastfeeding: https://www.babymed.com/breastfeeding/why-its-good-idea-continue-your-prenatal-vitamin-while-breastfeeding
- Postnatal vitamins: https://americanpregnancy.org/breastfeeding/postnatal-vitamins-while-breastfeeding/
- Prenatals for women with access to food, information, and medical care: https://www.todaysparent.com/pregnancy/study-says-women-can-skip-the-multivitamin-during-pregnancy-but-should-you/
- Those who need prenatal vitamins the most: https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/news/newsroom/news-releases/vast-majority-of-poor-urban-women-dont-use-prenatal-vitamins-before-pregnancy-study-shows