Prenatal Vitamins: Benefits and When You Should Take Them
Medically reviewed by Renita White, MD
Prenatal vitamins are supplements packed with essential micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) a fetus needs to grow and develop as pregnancy progresses. They also support the health of the person carrying the fetus. These vitamins usually come in the form of tablets, pills, gel capsules, or gummies.
During pregnancy, your body needs higher amounts of certain micronutrients daily. Adequate nourishment is also necessary for protecting fetal development and preventing certain birth defects. Taking a daily prenatal vitamin, in addition to eating a nutritious diet, can help you accomplish these goals.
Most prenatal vitamins contain similar micronutrients. Still, you'll want to check with your healthcare provider to make sure you're taking one that meets your individual needs.
Why Are Prenatal Vitamins Important?
Taking prenatal vitamins during pregnancy helps protect both maternal health and fetal growth and development.
During pregnancy, your body’s average levels of certain vitamins and minerals tend to decrease. Your body also needs higher amounts of certain nutrients to stay healthy. For example, about 15% to 25% of pregnant people experience iron deficiency anemia by the time they reach the third trimester, or week 27 of pregnancy. Iron deficiency anemia is when low irons level in the body cause a low red blood cell count, which can cause symptoms like weakness and fatigue.
Prenatal vitamins can help reduce your risk of certain health complications, such as miscarriage and preeclampsia (high blood pressure during pregnancy). They can also lower the likelihood of a variety of fetal and infant health concerns, such as low birth weight, neural tube defects, and preterm birth, which is birth before 37 weeks.
What's in Prenatal Vitamins?
Each prenatal vitamin is slightly different. Different brands might contain different vitamins and minerals, as well as varying amounts of each micronutrient.
However, most prenatal vitamins contain certain micronutrients, including:
Calcium: Calcium can be found in about 78% of prenatal vitamins. This mineral is crucial to the fetus's bone and tooth development. Getting enough calcium can also lower your risk of blood pressure-related conditions during and after pregnancy.
Choline: Choline can help prevent neural tube defects (NTDs) such as spina bifida (a spinal cord defect) and anencephaly (a brain defect). NTDs occur when the neural tube, the early formation of the brain and spine, does not close properly. Choline also promotes the healthy development of the fetal brain and spinal cord. During pregnancy, aim for at least 450 milligrams (mg) of choline daily.
Folic acid and folate: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommend that people who are pregnant or who may become pregnant consume 400 micrograms (mcg) of folic acid per day. Folic acid is a synthetic form of folate, which is a broad term used to describe many types of vitamin B9. Folate is found in whole foods like leafy green vegetables, citrus fruits, and beans. Both folic acid and folate are important during pregnancy to protect against common NTDs.
Iodine: Low iodine intake has been linked to a number of potential conditions, including maternal hypothyroidism (underactive thyroid) and intellectual disabilities among infants and children.
Iron: Pregnant people are at a higher risk of developing iron deficiency anemia. They need 27 mg of iron daily, compared to the recommended 18 mg for people who are not pregnant.
Vitamin A: Vitamin A helps protect the skin health and the immune systems of the pregnant person and fetus.
Vitamins B1, B6, B7, and B12: B vitamins provide a wide range of benefits to a growing fetus, including healthy nervous system development and the building blocks for red blood cell production.
Vitamin D: In the United States, an estimated 33% of pregnant people don’t get enough vitamin D. In addition to supporting your the fetus's skin, eye, tooth, and bone health, vitamin D can lower the risk of preeclampsia, gestational diabetes, preterm birth, and miscarriage.
When to Take Them
Many people start taking prenatal vitamins as soon as they begin trying to conceive or when they find out they’re pregnant.
The fetus's neural tube develops during the first month of pregnancy, often before you know you're pregnant. The general recommendation is to take a prenatal vitamin with at least 400 micrograms (mcg) of folic acid daily starting about one month before pregnancy until at least 12 weeks of pregnancy, or the end of the first trimester. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) recommends starting a prenatal vitamin several months before pregnancy.
According to the CDC, some people might benefit from continuing to take a prenatal vitamin while breastfeeding. For example, people who eat a vegetarian or vegan diet might not get adequate nutrients through diet alone. Breastfeeding also requires more of certain micronutrients, like iodine and choline.
Which Prenatal Vitamins Are the Best?
To promote your own health and your fetus’s health throughout pregnancy, look for a prenatal vitamin that contains the following vitamins and minerals:
Vitamin B complex (including B1, B2, B3, B5, B6, B7, B9, and B12)
Some prenatal vitamins also contain magnesium, which can help prevent preeclampsia in pregnant people and rickets in infants. They also may contain DHA, an omega-3 fatty acid crucial to fetal development.
If your prenatal multivitamin doesn’t contain all the recommended vitamins and minerals, your healthcare provider may suggest you take other supplements as well. For example, if you’ve had a child with a neural tube defect in the past, your OB-GYN may recommend that you take 4 mg of folic acid daily for three months or more before pregnancy as well as throughout the first trimester.
Gastrointestinal, or digestive, issues are the most common side effects of prenatal vitamins. For example, excessive iron intake can cause symptoms such as:
Taking iron intermittently—for example, two or three times a week on non-consecutive days—might reduce possible side effects. However, pregnancy itself can cause many of these symptoms, so you might not know whether or not the prenatal vitamin itself is the cause.
Excess fat-soluble vitamins like A, D, E, and K are stored in your liver and body fat. Therefore, it can be dangerous to overconsume these vitamins. Vitamin C and B vitamins are water-soluble, which means the excess of those vitamins is released through your urine, or pee.
It's important to take the recommended daily serving of prenatal vitamins. Excessive intake of certain ingredients, such as vitamin A, might put you or your baby at risk for health complications. However, more research is needed to determine the potential side effects of consuming too many micronutrients during pregnancy.
Keep track of the daily amounts of supplements you take so your healthcare provider can make sure you're staying within recommended daily limits based on your individual circumstances.
A Quick Review
Taking prenatal vitamins from the time you start trying to get pregnant through the first trimester of pregnancy can help you protect your own health and your baby’s healthy development. It can also lower the risk of birth defects and other possible complications. If possible, choose a prenatal vitamin that contains folic acid, calcium, iron, iodine, and choline, as well as vitamins A, C, B, and D.
It's also important to prioritize nutrition during pregnancy. While a prenatal vitamin provides vitamins and minerals, it doesn't provide the calories necessary to support the growth of your fetus.
Talk to your OB-GYN or another healthcare provider about any supplements you decide to take during pregnancy, including prenatal vitamins.
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