Prenatal Vitamins

Your Guide to a Healthy Pregnancy

What are they?

Prenatal vitamins are specially formulated multivitamins that mothers-to-be are advised to take for their own health as well as for the health of their babies.  These vitamins make up for any nutritional deficiencies in your diet during your pregnancy.  While the supplements contain numerous vitamins and minerals, their folic acid, iron and calcium content are especially important.

Why do pregnant women need high levels of folic acid, iron and calcium?

Taking folic acid can reduce your risk of having a baby with a serious birth defect of the brain and spinal cord, called the “neural tube”.  A baby with spina bifida, the most common neural tube defect, is born with a spine that is not completely developed.  The exposed nerves are damaged, leaving the child with varying degrees of paralysis, incontinence and sometimes mental retardation.

Neural tube defects develop in the first 28 days after conception.  Because about half of all pregnancies are unplanned, the U.S. Public Health Service recommends that all women of childbearing age get 400 micrograms of folic acid each day.  In fact, the FDA now requires that all flour products – such as breads, buns and bagels – be fortified with extra folic acid.

There are natural sources of folic acid:  green leafy vegetables, nuts, beans and citrus fruits.  It’s also found in many fortified breakfast cereals and some vitamin supplements.

Taking calcium during pregnancy can prevent a new mother from losing her own bone density as the fetus uses the mineral for bone growth.

Taking iron helps both the mother and baby’s blood carry oxygen.

While a daily vitamin supplement is no substitute for a healthy diet, most women need supplements to make sure they get adequate levels of these minerals.

Are all prenatal supplements the same?

No, they’re not.  Look for one that contains approximately:

  • 4,000-5,000 IU of vitamin A
  • 0.8-1mg of folic acid
  • 400 IU of vitamin D
  • 200-300 mg of calcium
  • 70 mg of vitamin C
  • 1.5 mg of thiamine
  • 1.6 mg of riboflavin
  • 2.6 mg of pyridoxine
  • 17 mg of niacinamide
  • 2.2 to 12 mcg of vitamin B-12
  • 10 mg of vitamin E
  • 15 mg of zinc
  • 30 mg of iron

Your doctor or midwife can also advise your on certain brands.  In some cases, your health care provider will give you a prescription for a certain type of prenatal vitamin.

My prenatal vitamin makes me nauseous, what should I do?

Some prenatal vitamins can cause nausea in an already nauseous pregnant woman.  If your prenatal vitamins make you sick, talk to your health care provider.  He or she might be able to prescribe a different kind of prenatal vitamin.  For example, chewable vitamins as opposed to those you swallow whole might be better tolerated by some women.