Understanding Prenatal Vitamins—Building Blocks for a Healthy Pregnancy

If you are going through your first pregnancy, there’s a lot of information to take in, and you have probably heard a few things about prenatal vitamins. Chances are, you’ve had a doctor recommend them, and you might have even read some viewpoints about which formulations are more effective and why. The information can be confusing because there are a variety of strong opinions out there, including some opinions about vitamins in general that can be counterproductive.

Pregnant woman with prenatal vitamins in hand.

Pregnant woman with prenatal vitamins in hand.

Why Prenatal Vitamins Are Important

When you get pregnant, your body goes into overdrive metabolically. This should be no surprise, since you are in the process of growing another person. That process means your body needs the raw materials to be able to build that tissue, including major building blocks like protein and trace ingredients like minerals. It also means your body needs vitamins to process the changes, and those demands can get to be more than most women can obtain from food alone. To prevent vitamin deficiencies for the mother and to support healthy growth for the baby, doctors have been recommending specially formulated prenatal vitamins for decades.

Products rich in calcium. Healthy food. Cheese, dairy and nuts.

Products rich in calcium. Healthy food. Cheese, dairy and nuts.

Which Vitamins Are Most Critical?

Your body will generally demand more vitamins because your metabolic processes will be engaged and your body will basically be reacting like it does when building new tissue, except in this case it is not limited to one tissue type at a time. That means a well-rounded daily multivitamin is essential. What makes prenatal vitamins special is the way they emphasize a few core minerals that are especially important for pregnant women.

  • Folic acid: Folate is very important for women in general because it can help with a variety of health and hormonal conditions, but it is even more important when you are pregnant because it helps prevent neural tube birth defects.
  • Calcium: The demands for calcium that your body will make can be enough to deplete your own bone health under normal circumstances. Taking extra calcium ensures your body has enough to use without affecting your own bone health.
  • Iron: This essential element helps the blood to carry oxygen, so more of it is necessary whenever the body is expected to be building red blood cells—including when they are for another person.
Foods high in Iron, including eggs, nuts, spinach, beans, seafood, liver, sesame, chickpeas, tomatoes.

Foods high in Iron, including eggs, nuts, spinach, beans, seafood, liver, sesame, chickpeas, tomatoes.

How Much of Each Vitamin Should I Take?

The recommended dosages, as reported by WebMD, are:

  • 400 micrograms of folic acid
  • 400 IU of vitamin D
  • 200 to 300 milligrams of calcium
  • 70 milligrams of vitamin C
  • Three milligrams of niacin
  • Two milligrams of riboflavin
  • 20 milligrams of niacin
  • 6 micrograms of vitamin B12
  • 10 milligrams of vitamin E
  • 15 milligrams of zinc
  • 17 milligrams of iron
  • 150 milligrams of iodine

This formulation will be available in many brands of prenatal vitamin, or a very similar dosage will be. These recommendations are reported as standard, too, so your individual health and other medical needs could change the recommendation your doctor makes. In many cases, women with extra health concerns are prescribed specific prenatal vitamins to ensure they have appropriate dosages and any additional minerals their conditions necessitate.

Foods rich in vitamin D. Salmon, mushrooms, eggs, green beans, cheese.

Foods rich in vitamin D. Salmon, mushrooms, eggs, green beans, cheese.

Vitamin Skepticism

Due to the classification of vitamins by the FDA as supplements and food products and not as drugs, there has come to be a great deal of vitamin skepticism among consumers. Major media outlets caution against the excessive use of supplements for good reason, and these issues are quite pressing in general, but it is important for pregnant women to remember that even in those articles, there are caveats to the skepticism.

That’s because vitamins are necessary and do work for those with deficiencies, and high quality, honest prenatal vitamins are manufactured by many of the same companies you trust for other specially formulated food and medicine items for your baby. The skepticism stems from companies packaging supplements without quality control, not from the efficacy of the supplements.

If your doctor recommends a specific brand like Prenate Mini or Similac prenatal vitamins, it is important that you follow the recommendation. Those major brands are well-tested and well-known, and they provide documented benefits to pregnant women across the board. Similarly, if you receive a prescription for a pharmaceutical-grade vitamin supplement, it is doubly important that you take it, because it is being given to address specific health concerns.

Vitamins and Diet

Prenatal vitamins are great for maintaining your health during a pregnancy, but they are designed to supplement a healthy and differentiated diet that is rich in vitamins and minerals. You will need to make sure you avoid foods that can possibly complicate your pregnancy like those that carry risks of infection or secondary medication. That means cutting down on chocolate and caffeine a bit and avoiding both alcohol and foods that are cooked in alcoholic sauces. It also means prioritizing a varied diet that has strong protein sources.

Being healthy during pregnancy does not have to mean giving up your ideals or your lifestyle, but certain diets are harder to sustain while carrying a child. If you are maintaining any of the following diets, please consult your doctor for advice about the best choice of prenatal vitamins.

  • Vegetarian or vegan
  • Gluten free
  • Dairy free/lactose free
  • Diets to support gastric bypass
  • Diets to support chronic illnesses

It is also a good idea to seek additional nutritional support if you smoke, even if you have successfully stopped for the duration of your pregnancy. That is because smoking causes certain health risks to come up that might necessitate additional dietary supplements.

Conclusion

When you are looking for prenatal vitamins that you can count on, the brands you know best are probably the best choices. That means your go-to if you don’t have a doctor’s recommendation should be something relatively simple like Honest prenatal vitamins or Prenate Mini. Similac prenatal vitamins are also widely recommended, and the company is known for its quality controls and enjoys a longstanding recommendation.

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