If you are pregnant or planning a pregnancy, you need to be careful about taking vitamins or any other type of supplements.
What Are Prenatal Vitamins?
Prenatal vitamins are supplements made for pregnant women to give their bodies the vitamins and minerals needed for a healthy pregnancy.
Your doctor may suggest that you take them when you begin to plan for pregnancy, as well as while you’re pregnant.
Eating a healthy diet is always a wise idea — especially during pregnancy. It’s also a good idea to take a prenatal vitamin to help cover any nutritional gaps in your diet.
Prenatal vitamins are multivitamins for pregnant women or women who are trying to get pregnant.
Compared to a regular multivitamin, they have more of some nutrients that you need during pregnancy.
Your health care provider may prescribe a prenatal vitamin for you, or you can buy them over the counter without a prescription.
Take a prenatal vitamin every day during pregnancy. If you’re planning to get pregnant, start taking prenatal vitamins before you get pregnant.
Your body uses vitamins, minerals and other nutrients in food to make it strong and healthy. During pregnancy, your growing baby gets all the necessary nutrients from you.
So you may need more during pregnancy than you did before. Also, if you’re pregnant with multiples (twins, triplets or more), you may need more nutrients than if you’re pregnant with one baby.
Your prenatal vitamin contains the right amount of nutrients you need during pregnancy.
If you’re a vegetarian, have food allergies or can’t eat certain foods, your provider may want you to take a supplement to help you get more of certain nutrients.
A supplement is a product you take to make up for certain nutrients that you don’t get enough of in the foods you eat.
For example, your provider may recommend taking a vitamin supplement to help you get more vitamin D, iron or calcium.
Which Nutrients Are Most Important During Pregnancy?
All nutrients are important, but these six play a key role in your baby’s growth and development during pregnancy:
- Folic acid
- Vitamin D
What To Look For In Prenatal Vitamins?
Prenatal vitamins help ensure that you get the nutrients you need for a healthy pregnancy.
Look for prenatal vitamins that have:
- 400 micrograms (mcg) of folic acid
- 400 IU of vitamin D
- 200 to 300 milligrams (mg) of calcium
- 70 mg of vitamin C
- 3 mg of thiamine
- 2 mg of riboflavin
- 20 mg of niacin
- Six mcg of vitamin B12
- 10 mg of vitamin E
- 15 mg of zinc
- 17 mg of iron
- 150 micrograms of iodine
In some cases, your doctor will give you a prescription for a certain type of prenatal vitamin.
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What Are Vitamins And Supplements?
Your body needs various nutrients for good health: vitamins, minerals, protein, carbohydrates, fats and fibre.
Vitamins are organic compounds needed in small amounts that your body can’t make for itself.
Apart from vitamin D, which is mostly sourced from sunlight, most of the vitamins you need come from food.
Dietary supplements are complementary medicines that contain nutrients that may fill a deficiency (a gap) in your diet. Examples include multivitamins, single minerals, fish oil capsules and herbal supplements.
Essential Vitamins And Minerals In Pregnancy
Good nutrition in pregnancy is vital for the healthy growth and development of your baby. You need to consume enough nutrients to meet your baby’s needs, as well as your own.
When you’re pregnant, you need more nutrients, including protein, folate, iodine and iron.
- folate (called ‘folic acid’ when in supplement form) helps prevent neural tube defects, such as spina bifida
- iodine is needed for brain and nervous system development
- iron helps prevent anaemia in the mother, as well as low birth weight in the baby
Vitamin B12 and vitamin D are also particularly important since they support the development of the baby’s nervous system (B12) and skeleton (D). Adequate vitamin C intake also helps improve the absorption of iron from your diet.
What Is Folic Acid?
If getting pregnant is a possibility for you, you should take folic acid. It can prevent congenital disabilities that affect the baby’s brain and spinal cord.
Neural tube defects develop early in pregnancy before many women know they’re pregnant; half of all pregnancies are unplanned.
This is why doctors recommend that any woman who could get pregnant take 400 micrograms (mcg) of folic acid daily, starting before conception and continuing for the first 12 weeks of pregnancy.
If you’ve had a baby with a neural tube defect, you should talk with your health care provider about folic acid.
Studies have shown that taking a larger dose (up to 4,000 micrograms) at least one month before and during the first trimester may help if you’ve had a baby with this defect.
But talk to your doctor about what’s right for you.
Folic acid is a B vitamin that every cell in your body needs for healthy growth and development.
Taking folic acid before and during early pregnancy can help prevent congenital disabilities of the brain and spine called neural tube defects (also called NTDs).
Some studies show that taking folic acid may help prevent heart defects and congenital disabilities in your baby’s mouth (cleft lip and palate).
Before pregnancy, take a vitamin supplement with 400 mcg of folic acid every day. Take a vitamin supplement with 400 mcg of folic acid each day, even if you’re not trying to get pregnant.
During pregnancy, take a prenatal vitamin each day that has 600 mcg of folic acid in it. Check the product label to see how much folic acid is in it.
If you’re at high risk for having a baby with an NTD, talk to your provider about how you can safely take 4,000 mcg of folic acid each day to help prevent an NTD.
Start taking 4,000 mcg at least three months before you get pregnant and through the first 12 weeks of pregnancy. You’re at high risk if:
- You’ve had a pregnancy with an NTD in the past.
- You or your partner has an NTD.
- Your partner has a child with an NTD.
Don’t take several multivitamins or prenatal vitamins. You can get too many other nutrients, which may be harmful to your health.
Your provider can help you figure out the best and safest way to get the right amount of folic acid.
You can also get folic acid from food. Citrus fruits, green leafy vegetables and beans are all excellent sources of folic acid. Some foods are also enriched with folic acids, such as cereals, bread, rice and pasta.
Foods that have folic acid include:
- Green leafy vegetables
- Citrus fruits
- Many other foods fortified with folic acid
Even though you can get folic acid from food, it’s a good idea to take a supplement as a backup.
What Is Iron?
Iron helps your body make more blood red cells. These blood cells carry oxygen to the baby that it needs to develop.
Iron is a mineral. Your body uses iron to make hemoglobin, a protein that helps carry oxygen from your lungs to the rest of your body.
It would help if you twice had as much iron during pregnancy as you did before pregnancy. Your body needs this iron to make more blood so it can carry oxygen to your baby. In addition, your baby needs iron to make his blood.
During pregnancy, you need 27 milligrams of iron each day. Most prenatal vitamins have this amount. You also can get iron from food. Good sources of iron include:
Lean meat, poultry and seafood
- Cereal, bread and pasta that has iron added to it (check the package label)
- Leafy green vegetables
- Beans, nuts, raisins and dried fruit
Foods containing vitamin C can increase the amount of iron your body absorbs. So it’s a good idea to eat foods like orange juice, tomatoes, strawberries and grapefruit every day.
Calcium (in dairy products like milk) and coffee, tea, egg yolks, fibre, and soybeans can block your body from absorbing iron. Try to avoid these when eating iron-rich foods.
If you don’t get enough iron during pregnancy, you may be more likely to experience:
- Anemia. This means you have too little iron in your blood.
- Fatigue. This means you feel exhausted.
- Premature birth. This means your baby is born too soon, before 37 weeks of pregnancy.
- Low birthweight. This means your baby is born weighing less than 5 pounds, 8 ounces.
What Is Calcium?
Calcium is a mineral that helps your baby’s bones, teeth, heart, muscles, and nerves develop.
During pregnancy, you need 1,000 milligrams of calcium each day.
You can get this amount by taking your prenatal vitamins and eating food with a lot of calcium. Good sources of calcium include:
- Milk, cheese and yogurt
- Broccoli and kale
- Orange juice that has calcium added to it (check the package label)
If you don’t get enough calcium during pregnancy, your body takes it from your bones and gives it to your baby.
This can cause health conditions, such as osteoporosis, later in life. Osteoporosis causes your bones to become thin and break easily.
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What Is Vitamin D?
Vitamin D helps your body absorb calcium. It also helps your body’s nerves, muscles and immune system work.
Your immune system protects your body from infection. In addition, vitamin D helps your baby’s bones and teeth grow.
During pregnancy, you need 600 IU (international units) of vitamin D each day. You can get this amount from food or your prenatal vitamin. Good sources of vitamin D include:
- Fatty fish, like salmon
- Milk and cereal that has vitamin D added to it (check the package label)
What Is DHA?
Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) is fat (called omega-3 fatty acid) that helps with growth and development.
During pregnancy, you need DHA to help your baby’s brain and eyes develop. However, not all prenatal vitamins contain DHA, so ask your provider if you need to take a DHA supplement.
During pregnancy, it is recommended that women eat 8 to 12 ounces of seafood low in mercury each week.
Good sources of DHA include:
- Herring, salmon, trout, anchovies, halibut, catfish, shrimp and tilapia
- Orange juice, milk and eggs that have DHA added to them (check the package label)
What Is Iodine?
Iodine is a mineral your body needs to make thyroid hormones, which help your body use and store energy from food.
You need iodine during pregnancy to help your baby’s nervous system develop. The nervous system (brain, spinal cord and nerves) allows your baby to move, think and feel.
During pregnancy, you need 220 micrograms of iodine every day.
Not all prenatal vitamins contain iodine, so make sure you eat foods that have iodine in them. Ask your provider if you need to take an iodine supplement.
Good sources of iodine include:
- Milk, cheese and yogurt
- Enriched or fortified cereal and bread (check the package label)
- Iodized salt (salt with iodine added to it; check the package label)
What About Other Nutrients?
Other nutrients may improve the health of your pregnancy. Your doctor can help you decide if you need to take supplements that include:
Omega-3 Fatty Acids:
These fats, which include DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) and EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid), come only from food sources such as fatty fish and nuts.
Studies show omega-3s can lower your risk of preterm birth and having a baby with low birth weight.
If you don’t eat much food that’s rich in omega-3s, ask your health care provider if a supplement is right for you.
Although your body can make some choline on its own, you get most of it from food. Rich sources include beef, pork, chicken, fish, and eggs.
Many pregnant women don’t get enough choline, which the baby needs for healthy brain growth.
Where To Get Pregnancy Supplements
You can get supplements from pharmacies and supermarkets, or a GP may prescribe them for you.
If you want to get your folic acid from a multivitamin tablet, make sure the tablet does not contain vitamin A (or retinol).
Folic Acid Before And During Pregnancy
It’s important to take a 400 micrograms folic acid tablet every day before you’re pregnant and until you’re 12 weeks pregnant.
Folic acid can help prevent congenital disabilities known as neural tube defects, including spina bifida.
If you did not take folic acid before you conceived, you should start as soon as you find out you’re pregnant.
Try to eat green leafy vegetables which contain folate (the natural form of folic acid) and breakfast cereals and fat spreads with folic acid added to them.
It’s difficult to get the amount of folate recommended for a healthy pregnancy from food alone, which is why it’s important to take a folic acid supplement.
Higher-dose Folic Acid
If you have a higher chance of your pregnancy being affected by neural tube defects, you will be advised to take a higher dose of folic acid (5 milligrams). You will be notified to take this each day until you’re 12 weeks pregnant.
You may have a higher chance if:
- you or the baby’s biological father have a neural tube defect
- you or the baby’s biological father have a family history of neural tube defects
- you have had a previous pregnancy affected by a neural tube defect
- you have diabetes
- you take anti-epilepsy medicine
- you take anti-retroviral medicine for HIV
If any of this applies to you, talk to a GP. They can prescribe a higher dose of folic acid. A GP or midwife may also recommend additional screening tests during your pregnancy.
Vitamin D In Pregnancy
You need ten micrograms of vitamin D each day and consider taking a supplement containing this amount between September and March.
Vitamin D regulates the amount of calcium and phosphate in the body needed to keep bones, teeth and muscles healthy.
Our bodies make vitamin D when our skin is exposed to summer sunlight (from late March/early April to the end of September).
It’s not known exactly how much time is needed in the sun to make enough vitamin D to meet the body’s needs, but if you’re in the sun, take care to cover up or protect your skin with sunscreen before you start to turn red or burn.
Vitamin D is also in some foods, including:
- oily fish (such as salmon, mackerel, herring and sardines)
- red meat
Vitamin D is added to some breakfast cereals, fat spreads and non-dairy milk alternatives. The amounts added to these products can vary and might only be small.
Because vitamin D is only found in a small number of foods, whether naturally or added, it is difficult to get enough from foods alone.
Please do not take more than 100 micrograms (4,000 IU) of vitamin D a day, as it could be harmful.
You can get vitamin supplements containing vitamin D free of charge if you’re pregnant or breastfeeding and qualify for the Healthy Start scheme.
Some can do more harm than good, so it’s always best to check with your doctor before taking supplements.
Taking prenatal vitamins and eating healthy foods can help give you all the nutrients you and your baby need during pregnancy.
Make sure your prenatal vitamin has folic acid, iron and calcium in it. Most have the right amount for each of these.
Talk to your provider to make sure you get enough vitamin D, DHA and iodine each day.
Don’t take any supplements without your provider’s OK.
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