The vitamin in her hand can give an assist to the baby in her belly. (Photo: iStock)
The supplement ob-gyns encourage expectant moms to take early in pregnancy — or even during the trying-for-a-baby stage — isn’t a magic pill that guarantees good health for mother and infant. Think of it more like an insurance policy that can lower the risk of some complications, from anemia and preeclampsia to birth defects of the brain and spine.
“Not taking a prenatal vitamin means that you aren’t taking advantage of something research shows can make a relatively rare health issue even rarer,” Dr. Mary Jane Minkin, clinical professor of ob-gyn at Yale School of Medicine, tells Yahoo Parenting.
Even if you already have a super healthy diet and are confident you’re getting all your essential nutrients from your meals, prenatal vitamins are a solid backup in case your diet has some holes in it, says Minkin. And considering the extra calories moms-to-be need, as well as crazy pregnancy cravings, odds are good your diet isn’t as healthy as you think.
“A healthy diet is the best way to get the body the nutrition it needs for pregnancy, and vitamins are no substitute for a healthy diet,” Maggie Moon, a nutritionist in Los Angeles and owner of Everyday Healthy Eating, tells Yahoo Parenting. “Still, nutrition needs go up during pregnancy, and a prenatal vitamin can help fill in any gaps.”
One of the most important gaps to fill has to do with folic acid. Not scoring enough of this B vitamin at the time of conception and in the first few weeks of pregnancy has been linked to brain and spine defects, since these body parts are formed early in the first trimester.
“A woman needs enough folic acid in her body before and during pregnancy, but it is especially important to have enough before getting pregnant,” says Moon, so that she has a supply of it if she conceives. The recommended amount before pregnancy is 400 mcg daily; after conception, it’s 600 mcg. “It’s very hard to get folic acid from food alone, so a supplement is crucial,” says Minkin.
What else should you look for in a prenatal pill? Iron, vitamin D, iodine, and calcium. “Getting the right amount of iron can prevent iron-related anemia,” says Moon. “Anemia is associated with premature birth and low birth weight, which are linked to issues affecting brain development, breathing, and the immune system.”
“Vitamin D plays a role in preventing pregnancy complications such as diabetes, preeclampsia, even depression,” says Minkin. Vitamin D is also hard to get from food alone, which is why it’s a key part of prenatal vitamins.
Iodine is can lower your risk of several issues. “Iodine deficiency can be harmful to the baby’s healthy brain development, and in extreme cases is linked to miscarriage and stillbirth,” says Moon.
As for calcium, Moon adds that if a pregnant woman doesn’t take in enough of this mineral for both herself and her baby, her body will leech calcium from her bones and teeth to help the baby, putting her at risk for weaker bones and osteoporosis.
When it comes to taking prenatal pills, ask your doctor what type to take and what amount of each nutrient to look for; most over-the-counter pharmacy brands should supply the right quantities, says Minkin. Prescription pills are available as well, and your doctor might choose to give you one depending on your needs. Ask how long you should keep popping them. “Sometimes women are advised to take them past pregnancy and into the breastfeeding stage,” says Minkin.
If you decide to dodge prenatals, make sure your doctor is clued in, and tell her why. She can’t force you to swallow them, but she may be able to address any concerns you have, says Minkin. For example, some women get nauseous taking them, especially in the first trimester, with morning sickness in full swing. Your doc can suggest ways to take them — such as with food or at different time of day — so they go down smoothly,