How to Choose the Best Prenatal Vitamin for You

If making a little one is even on your mind, do yourself (and your future baby) a favor and start taking a prenatal supplement now. The early weeks of pregnancy are so crucial in spinal and brain development that general guidelines strongly recommend women take a prenatal supplement well before they’re trying to conceive (1).

You’ll come to realize that choosing a prenatal vitamin will be just the first of many, many decisions you’ll have to make when it comes to the health and well-being of your little one. And like most mom decisions, it can be overwhelming.

What Are Prenatal Vitamins?

Growing a human being takes a lot of work and a lot of extra nutrients to fuel the health and growth of mom-to-be and baby-to-be. Prenatal vitamins are designed to supply women with these essential vitamins and minerals to maximize baby’s growth.

In just the first few weeks of pregnancy, often before a woman knows she’s pregnant, baby is starting to develop its spinal cord. That’s why folate and folic acid—the synthetic version—are so crucial: Taking 400 mcg of folate or folic acid per day will help prevent spine and brain defects, also called neural tube defects, like spina bifida (1).

Ideally you want high levels of folic acid in your system before you even get pregnant, says Lauren Manaker,  a registered dietitian and owner of Nutrition Now Counseling, who specializes in fertility and prenatal nutrition.

She recommends her clients start taking a supplement at least three months before they try to conceive.

Benefits of Prenatal Vitamins

Following a healthy, balanced diet is extremely important when trying to get pregnant and during pregnancy. But sometimes—morning sickness, anyone?—it can be hard to eat all of those fruits and veggies like you’re supposed to. A prenatal vitamin is a good way to ensure you and baby are getting the nutrients you need.

“A supplement should be supplementing your diet, not covering all the bases of it,” Manaker says.

Benefits of prenatal vitamins include:

  • Supplement your diet
  • Avoid nausea associated with morning sickness (2)
  • Reduce the risk of birth defects (3)
  • Help prevent preterm birth (4)

Nutrients to Look for in a Prenatal Vitamin

If you’ve started to peruse prenatal vitamin ingredients lists, you’ve seen, well, a laundry list of vitamins and minerals. And while yes, you and baby need them all, there are some essential nutrients that you cannot go without.

Folate/Folic acid

When you hear prenatal vitamin, you most likely will hear folate or folic acid right after it. This B vitamin will help prevent neural tube defects like spina bifida, and it’s crucial you take enough folate or folic acid in the very early weeks of pregnancy.

Guidelines recommend 400 mcg of folic acid per day. Some supplements may have either folic acid or folate. Folic acid is the synthetic version, while folate is the natural version, Manaker says.

Manaker recommends prenatal vitamins with folate because it might be more tolerable and better absorbed for some women (5).

Vitamin B12

This B vitamin is found only in animal products and fortified foods, meaning vegetarians and vegans, especially, should take extra care in finding a prenatal vitamin with vitamin B12, Manaker says.

The World Health Organization says in addition to folic acid, vitamin B12 may play a role in preventing neural tube defects (6).

The National Institutes of Health guidelines recommend pregnant and breastfeeding women take 2.8 mcg of vitamin B12 per day. Common food sources of vitamin B12 include beef, liver, clams, fish, eggs, chicken, dairy, and fortified breads, cereals, and juice (7).

Vitamin B12 also helps in the maintenance of nerve and blood cells, and helps make DNA.

Omega-3 Fatty Acids

DHA and EPA fatty acids are somewhat new to the prenatal vitamin supplement, as more and more research comes out linking them to fetal eye and brain development (8).

The March of Dimes recommends women take 200 mg of DHA per day.

Manaker points out that EPA isn’t really on women’s radars like DHA might be and to look for a vitamin that has both types of fatty acids.

Choline

Egg yolks are an excellent source of this nutrient, which has been linked to increased cognitive benefits in babies whose mothers took twice the recommended amount in the last trimester (9).

The recommended daily intake for choline is 450 mg.

Vitamin D

Many women are deficient in vitamin D even before they become pregnant, making getting enough of this nutrient even more important while growing a little one. While most prenatal vitamins contain 400 mg, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) recommends women take 600 mg.

Vitamin D, in conjunction with calcium, helps baby’s bones and teeth develop, according to ACOG (10).

The best natural source of vitamin D is through 15 to 30 minutes of sunlight.

Iodine

This nutrient is often overlooked, and according to a study published in The Lancet, women with a mild-to-moderate iodine deficiency had children with an increased risk for lower IQ and reading ability (11).

The recommended intake for iodine is 150 mg, and only 15 to 20 percent of pregnant and breastfeeding women take a supplement that contains iodine (12).

Iron

Iron helps with the development of red blood cells, and because pregnant women have nearly double the blood flow, having enough iron is extra important. Iron also can help prevent anemia. The daily recommended intake of iron is about 30 mg (8).

Manaker recommends taking iron and calcium separately, at different times of the day, to avoid a problem with absorption. Gummy vitamins often do not contain iron.

An important side note: Iron can be toxic in large doses, so speak with your health care provider about your diet and what levels of iron you should look for in a prenatal supplement.

How to Choose the Best Prenatal Vitamin

Like all vitamins and supplements, prenatal vitamins are not regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. That means it’s hard to know for sure what goes in them and how much of a nutrient is actually present.

Your best bet is to look for vitamins that are certified from the United States Pharmacopeia (USP), NSF International, or Consumer Lab.

While these certifications aren’t from the FDA and getting approval is not required, they can help you rest easy that you’re likely getting what you need.

When it comes to choosing a type of vitamin—pill, capsules, gummies—you might want to think about things like morning sickness and your sugar intake.

Gummies, for example, add extra sugar to your diet. For women who are at risk of or are managing gestational diabetes, for example, a gummy is probably not the way to go.

Better quality prenatal vitamins—those that use natural folate instead of folic acid, for example—might be better tolerated in women experiencing morning sickness, Manaker says.

Some prenatal vitamins might be better tolerated when taken with food, and the bottle should say so. Generally, you would only have to take a vitamin once a day unless you choose a brand that has multiple pills to increase absorption, for example.

Once you’ve had your baby, it might not be time to give up your prenatal vitamin. Manaker recommends women who are breastfeeding continue taking a prenatal vitamin.

“Women’s needs are even higher when they’re lactating so they need extra supplementation,” she says. “In general, if they’re taking the same prenatal [as during pregnancy], they would be fine.”

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