Prenatal vitamins are on a table
Prenatal vitamins help expecting mothers and their babies receive the proper and key nutrients they need.

Why Use Prenatal Vitamins?

While it’s best to get essential nutrients through a healthy diet, you still might fall short on key vitamins and minerals. If you're hoping to conceive – or are already pregnant – prenatal vitamins are important to fill any gaps.

With prenatal vitamins, you will get a higher level of folic acid and iron than with standard adult multivitamins. Plus, you’ll get several more nutrients that are critical to your baby’s development.

Research also suggests that prenatal vitamins reduce the risk of having a very small baby.

The Role of Folic Acid, Iron, Iodine, Calcium, and Vitamin D in Prenatal Vitamins

  • Folic acid helps prevent neural tube birth defects that affect the brain and spinal cord. These defects develop in the first 28 days after conception before you realize you are pregnant.
  • Iron helps blood carry oxygen in both the mother and baby.
  • Iodine helps to boost a woman’s healthy thyroid function during pregnancy. With an iodine deficiency, she risks stunted physical growth, deafness, and severe mental disability. Iodine deficiency can also cause miscarriage and stillbirth.
  • Calcium and vitamin D are especially important during the third trimester when your baby's bones are growing rapidly. Calcium can also prevent a pregnant woman from losing her own bone density since the baby will use calcium for its own bone growth.
  • Omega-3 fatty acids aren’t included in all prenatal vitamins. However, these nutrients might help promote a baby's brain development. Eat fish or other foods high in omega-3 fatty acids. Or if your doctor agrees, take omega-3 fatty acid supplements in addition to prenatal vitamins.

Since nearly half of all pregnancies are unplanned, women who could get pregnant are advised to take 400 micrograms (mcg) of folic acid daily – starting before conception and continuing for the first 12 weeks of pregnancy.

If a previous pregnancy has resulted in a neural tube defect, talk to your doctor about folic acid supplements and discuss the dose. According to research, taking a larger dose (up to 4,000 micrograms) at least one month before and during the first trimester may help prevent another neural tube defect. Check with your doctor first.

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An Optimal Prenatal Vitamin Includes

  • 400 micrograms (mcg) folic acid
  • 150 mcg iodine
  • 6 mcg vitamin B12
  • 400 IU vitamin D
  • 200 to 300 milligrams (mg) calcium
  • 70 mg vitamin C
  • 20 mg niacin
  • 17 mg iron
  • 15 mg zinc
  • 10 mg vitamin E
  • 3 mg thiamine
  • 2 mg riboflavin

Your doctor may prescribe a specific prenatal vitamin.

Taking Prenatal Vitamins

It’s a good idea to take a daily multivitamin containing folic acid – whether you are planning to get pregnant or not. This protects your baby even if you find yourself with an unplanned pregnancy.

If you are planning a pregnancy, start taking prenatal vitamins three months before conception. Or, start the vitamins as soon as pregnancy is confirmed.

Doctors advise taking prenatal vitamins during the entire pregnancy. Your doctor might recommend continuing to take prenatal vitamins even after the baby is born – as they are an important source of nutrients during breastfeeding.

If you feel nauseous when taking prenatal vitamins, talk to your doctor. Prescription prenatal vitamins might be the answer for you, as chewable or liquid vitamins might work better than pills.

Some women experience constipation due to the iron in prenatal vitamins. You can help prevent constipation with a few key steps:

  • Get plenty of fiber in your diet.
  • Drink plenty of fluids.
  • Talk to your healthcare provider about using a stool softener.

Also, get physical activity in your daily routine, like walking. Make sure your doctor says it’s okay before incorporating any type of exercise.

If you still get constipated, talk to your doctor. You might benefit from another type of prenatal vitamin or individual supplements containing folic acid, iron, and calcium with vitamin D.