Taking prenatal vitamins and eating foods that contain essential nutrients and vitamins are important for bringing a healthy baby to term. Eating a healthy diet serves both the mother and the growing fetus well during the gestation, but taking specific vitamins is crucial to ensure that the baby has everything it needs to grow and develop properly. Even for someone who eats well, taking the vitamins will give the mother’s body what it needs.
Key Ingredients in Prenatal Vitamins
While prenatal vitamins typically contain about a dozen individual vitamins, the four most important include folic acid, calcium, iodine, and iron.
Folic acid, found in green leafy vegetables, beans, nuts, citrus fruits and fortified foods, is important for preventing neural tube birth defects of the brain and spinal cord. Since these systems develop early and approximately 50% of pregnancies are unplanned, any woman of childbearing age should take about 400 micrograms (mcg) of folic acid every day, even before becoming pregnant. This should be continued for at least the first 12 weeks of pregnancy and throughout lactation. Nursing mothers should continue to take them throughout lactation.
Calcium keeps a woman’s bones strong, as the baby takes calcium from the mother to develop its own bone.
Iodine helps maintain proper thyroid function and is essential to prevent deafness, severe mental disabilities, and stunted physical growth. A deficiency of iodine can result in miscarriage or stillbirth.
Iron enriches the blood of both mother and baby with oxygen, and promotes growth and development.
What Should You Look for in a Prenatal Vitamin?
An ideal prenatal vitamin might include:
400 micrograms (mcg) of folic acid
400 IU of vitamin D
200 to 300 milligrams (mg) of calcium
70 mg of vitamin C
3 mg of thiamine
2 mg of riboflavin
20 mg of niacin
6 mcg of vitamin B12
10 mg of vitamin E
15 mg of zinc
70 mg of iron
150 micrograms of iodine
These vitamins are available over-the-counter. As different brands vary in the amount of specific ingredients, it is important to carefully read the label to buy the best one. In some cases, your provider might recommend a particular brand, write a prescription for some, or offer guidelines. Some OTC brands may give too much or too little of specific vitamins and may vary in consistency and quality. Your provider may also recommend that you take increased folic acid or other supplements separately, so as not to increase the concentration of other vitamins such as A, which can be toxic to the fetus in large quantities. For example, if you have previously given birth to a baby with a neural tube defect, your provider might prescribe up to four milligrams of folic acid before and during future pregnancies.
Side Effects of Prenatal Vitamins
Despite the importance of taking prenatal vitamins, some women find that taking the pills makes them nauseous as well as constipated. In this case, your provider might suggest that you buy a different brand of vitamin, use a stool softener, take the vitamins with a snack, or switch to a liquid, soft chew, or soft gel form of the product. He or she might even want you to take separate folic acid, calcium with vitamin D, or iron supplements if nothing else works for you.
If you are pregnant, taking prenatal vitamins is essential for your health and that of your unborn child. Your doctor or midwife at Rocky Mountain Women’s Health Center will discuss your options and further explain the importance of prenatal vitamins in fetal development to ensure a healthy baby.