Prenatal Vitamins: What you need to know

Prenatal vitamins are prescribed during pregnancy (and lactation) for a mother’s health, and the health of her baby.  These are specially formulated multivitamins that make up for any nutritional deficiencies in the mother’s diet.

While a daily vitamin supplement cannot take the place of a healthy diet, many women need supplements to make sure they get adequate levels of these vitamins and minerals. (Eating a healthy diet that includes a variety of foods actually helps your body absorb the vitamins better.) These supplements contain numerous vitamins and minerals, but certain ones are especially important during pregnancy:

Folic Acid

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 closed. The exposed nerves are damaged, leaving the child with varying degrees of paralysis, incontinence, and sometimes mental retardation.

This is one vitamin that all women of childbearing age are recommended to take. This is because neural tube defects develop in the first 28 days after conception, before many women even realize they are pregnant.  In fact, the FDA now requires that all flour products — such as breads, buns, and bagels — be fortified with extra folic acid. A woman who has had a prior child with a neural tube defect should discuss the appropriate dose of folic acid with her doctor before her next pregnancy.

Food sources include: green leafy vegetables, nuts, beans, citrus fruits, and fortified breakfast cereals.


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

Food sources include: Yogurt, milk, cheddar cheese, calcium-fortified foods like soy milk, juices, breads, cereals, dark green leafy vegetables, canned fish with bones.


Iron helps both the mother and baby’s blood carry oxygen.  Most women do not get the amount of iron that they need to keep up with the 50% increase in blood volume and for storage in the baby’s liver. Iron can also help prevent anemia, low birth weight, and premature delivery.

Food sources include: Beef, pork, dried beans, spinach, dried fruits, wheat germ, oatmeal or grains fortified with iron.

Are All Prenatal Vitamins the Same?

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

  • 4,000 and 5,000 IU (international units) of vitamin A
  • 800 and 1,000 mcg (1 mg) of folic acid
  • 400 IU of vitamin D
  • 200 to 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 mcg of vitamin B12
  • 10 mg of vitamin E
  • 15 mg of zinc
  • 30 mg of iron

Beware of Over-Dosing

American Pregnancy cautions: Avoid taking several different supplements unless under a health care provider’s supervision; instead take one multivitamin that includes a variety of needed nutrients in one dose. Combining supplements (such as taking a folic acid supplement along with your multivitamin, etc.) can raise concerns because you run the risk of overdosing on a particular nutrient. Taking more than 100% the RDA of any nutrient should be avoided during pregnancy unless under the direction of your health care provider. Ask him/her to recommend a prenatal vitamin suitable for you.

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  1. Researchers there found that women in early pregnancy who took a multivitamin or prenatal vitamin regularly reduced their risk of preeclampsia by 45%. Preeclampsia, which causes elevated blood pressure and protein in the urine, is a leading cause of premature delivery and fetal death.

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