Prenatal vitamins are an important part of pregnancy nutrition. Here's why you need them, when to start taking them and more.
By Mayo Clinic staff
A healthy diet is the best way to get the vitamins and minerals you need — but even if you eat healthfully every day, you may fall short on key nutrients. If you're pregnant or hoping to conceive, prenatal vitamins can help fill any gaps.
How are prenatal vitamins different from other vitamins?
Most prenatal vitamins contain more folic acid, calcium and iron than do standard adult multivitamins. It's still important to eat nutritious foods, but prenatal vitamins can help ensure you're getting enough of these essential nutrients during pregnancy.
Here's why it matters:
Folic acid helps prevent neural tube defects. These defects are serious abnormalities of the brain and spinal cord.
Calcium promotes strong bones and teeth for both mother and baby. Calcium also helps your circulatory, muscular and nervous systems run normally.
Iron supports the development of blood and muscle cells for both mother and baby. Iron helps prevent anemia, a condition in which blood lacks adequate healthy red blood cells.
Prenatal vitamins may reduce the risk of low birth weight. Some research suggests that prenatal vitamins decrease the risk of low birth weight.
Do I need to be concerned about other nutrients?
Standard prenatal vitamins don't include omega-3 fatty acids, which help promote a baby's brain development. If you're unable or choose not to eat fish or other foods high in omega-3 fatty acids, your health care provider may recommend omega-3 fatty acid supplements in addition to prenatal vitamins.
Vitamin D is important as well — especially during the third trimester, when calcium demands increase. Most prenatal vitamins don't contain optimal amounts of vitamin D, however. In addition to your prenatal vitamin, drink vitamin D-fortified low-fat milk or other calcium-rich foods containing vitamin D. If you don't drink milk or eat calcium-rich foods, talk to your health care provider about calcium and vitamin D supplements.
Do prenatal vitamins require a prescription?
Prenatal vitamins are available over-the-counter in nearly any pharmacy. Some prenatal vitamins require a prescription, however. Your health care provider may recommend a specific brand of prenatal vitamins or leave the choice up to you.
When should I start taking prenatal vitamins?
It's best to start taking prenatal vitamins three months before conception. The baby's neural tube, which becomes the brain and spinal cord, develops during the first month of pregnancy — perhaps before you even know that you're pregnant.
How long should I take prenatal vitamins?
It's best to take prenatal vitamins throughout your entire pregnancy, preferably with water or juice — not milk or soda. Your health care provider may recommend taking prenatal vitamins while you're breast-feeding, too.
Do prenatal vitamins have any side effects?
Some women feel queasy after taking prenatal vitamins. In other cases, the iron in prenatal vitamins contributes to constipation.
If prenatal vitamins seem to trigger nausea:
Take your prenatal vitamin at night
Take your prenatal vitamin with a snack
Chew gum or suck on hard candy after taking your prenatal vitamin
If you're struggling with constipation:
Drink plenty of water
Include more fiber in your diet
Include physical activity in your daily routine, as long as you have your health care provider's OK
Ask your health care provider about using a stool softener
If these tips don't seem to help, ask your health care provider about other options. He or she may recommend another type of prenatal vitamin or separate folic acid, calcium and iron supplements.