When to Start Taking Prenatal Vitamins

Although it’s always important to eat a healthy and balanced diet that is full of vitamins and minerals, there is perhaps no time more important than during pregnancy.

Prenatal vitamins offer women the nutritional support that they need in order to support a healthy pregnancy, which requires adequate quantities of certain essential vitamins and minerals. Many women start taking prenatal vitamins when they find out they are pregnant, but the time to take a prenatal vitamin actually is even earlier. 

When to Start Taking Prenatal Vitamins

Many women think that prenatal vitamins are only needed during pregnancy, but the best time to start taking a prenatal vitamin is actually before you get pregnant. In fact, because pregnancy can happen at any time once you and your partner are no longer using birth control, doctors recommend taking prenatal vitamins that contain folate at least one month prior to trying to conceive. The earliest weeks of pregnancy are when the fetus’ neural tube, including the brain and spinal cord, begin to develop, and your body needs adequate levels of folate in order to prevent birth defects. Because most women do not know they are pregnant during these early weeks, it is best to have been taking a prenatal vitamin before trying to get pregnant. 

Why Prenatal Vitamins are Important

Prenatal vitamins are one of the most important steps women can take to ensure a healthy pregnancy for both themselves and their growing babies. Prenatal vitamins have a wide range of benefits and are important for many different reasons, including:

    • Reducing the risk of birth defects: Nutritional deficiencies in pregnant women are one of the most common causes of congenital birth defects, and prenatal vitamins are specially formulated to address these deficiencies. Folate, or vitamin B9, is needed in higher quantities than normal in order to allow the neural tube to develop properly during the first weeks of pregnancy. Without an adequate quantity, defects such as spina bifida can occur. Women who are deficient in vitamin B12 are more likely to have babies born with neural tube defects and congenital heart defects as well. Although prenatal vitamins are not a substitute for eating a healthy diet, taking a prenatal vitamin helps to ensure that your body will have adequate nutritional support to help your unborn child develop.
  • Reducing nausea: An estimated 70 percent of women experience nausea during the first trimester of pregnancy, but prenatal vitamins can help reduce the severity of nausea as well as the likelihood of experiencing it at all. Vitamin B6, a common ingredient in prenatal vitamins, has been found to lower the risk of experiencing nausea during the first trimester of pregnancy. 
  • Prevent premature birth: Vitamin B12 deficiencies in pregnant women are linked to an increased risk of preterm birth and a lower birth weight for newborns. Taking prenatal vitamins is a quick and easy way to minimize the risks of preterm birth and address vitamin B12 deficiencies. 
    • Avoiding nutritional deficiencies: Prenatal vitamins aren’t only important for the health of the growing fetus; they are also critical to keep pregnant women healthy as well. Women need vitamins and minerals in higher amounts during pregnancy, which requires a healthy, balanced diet, but the nausea many women experience during the first trimester can make eating healthy meals a challenge. Prenatal vitamins aren’t intended to be a substitute for a healthy diet, but they can help fill in nutritional gaps to ensure that you and your baby both receive the nutrients you need. 

    What Nutrients a Good Prenatal Vitamin Should Contain

    In order to properly support a pregnancy, prenatal vitamins must include the appropriate vitamins and minerals in adequate amounts for pregnant women. A good prenatal vitamin should contain:

  • Folate (vitamin B9): Prenatal vitamins should contain at least 400 to 600 mcg of folate, which is the active form of vitamin B9. Folate is essential for the prevention of neural tube defects. Because the neural tube of a fetus begins to develop during the earliest weeks of pregnancy, waiting to take folate before you know you are pregnant is usually too late. Therefore, women should make sure that they have enough folate before they even begin trying to conceive. 
  • Iron: Prenatal vitamins should contain at least 30 mcg of iron, which is one of the most essential minerals for the development of a fetus. Iron is needed in order to support the development of the muscles and blood cells and to prevent anemia in pregnant women. Anemia is common during pregnancy, so it is important that pregnant women have an adequate amount of iron. 
  • Vitamin B6: Prenatal vitamins should contain at least 2 mg of vitamin B6 in order to minimize the symptoms of nausea, particularly during the first trimester. 
  • Iodine: Prenatal vitamins should contain at least 150 mcg of iodine. Iodine is critical in order to support the development of the thyroid and brain in the fetus. Iodine deficiency is very common in the United States, so there is a good chance that you may be deficient during pregnancy. Therefore, it is essential to support  your baby’s development with an adequate amount of iodine.  
  • Calcium: Growing fetuses need plenty of calcium in order to develop strong bones and teeth. If the fetus does not receive enough calcium, it will begin to leach calcium from its mother in order to meet its own needs. As a result, pregnant women can lose their own bone density while supporting their pregnancy. Prenatal vitamins should contain at least 150 mcg of calcium to supplement the amount that women receive from their daily diets.
  • Choline: Choline helps support brain development in growing fetuses. Women who are pregnant should take at least 450 mg of choline per day according to the Office of Dietary Supplements. Women commonly take in about one third of this amount through the consumption of foods like meat, poultry, fish, eggs, dairy, cruciferous vegetables, beans, nuts, seeds, and whole grains, so prenatal vitamins should contain at least 300 mg of choline to make up the remaining amount. 
  • Vitamin B12: Prenatal vitamins should contain at least 6 mcg of vitamin B12, and women should obtain the remainder from their diets. Low levels of vitamin B12 are linked to a number of adverse effects during pregnancy, including birth defects, low birth weight, and an increased possibility of preterm birth. People who follow plant based diets, including those who are vegetarian or vegan, are more likely to experience a vitamin B12 deficiency and therefore may need to add an additional vitamin B12 supplement beyond their prenatal vitamin during pregnancy. 
  • Vitamin D: Vitamin D is needed during pregnancy in order to support healthy bone development in babies and prevent reduced bone density during pregnancy. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists recommends choosing a prenatal vitamin that contains at least 600 IU, or 15 mcg, of vitamin D in order to ensure that you and your baby are receiving an adequate amount of this vitamin. 

  • Common Side Effects Associated With Prenatal Vitamins

    Most side effects associated with prenatal vitamins are mild and do not require medical attention in the vast majority of cases. Prenatal vitamins can sometimes cause side effects that include nausea and constipation. Nausea is common during pregnancy, particularly during the first trimester, and some women feel more nauseated when taking a supplement that must be swallowed whole. Whole foods-based prenatal vitamins are less likely to cause nausea than synthetic formulas because the body is better able to digest and absorb these supplements.  Some women also find that taking their vitamin with food or at night helps to reduce nausea. Constipation from prenatal vitamins is a result of the iron that these vitamins include. In order to minimize constipation, make sure to drink plenty of fluids, increase the amount of fiber in your diet, and incorporate exercise into your daily routine if approved by your healthcare provider.

    How to Choose the Best Prenatal Vitamin

    Choosing the best prenatal vitamins comes down to finding a prenatal vitamin that contains the appropriate vitamins and minerals to support a healthy pregnancy in the right amounts and in a usable form. Prenatal vitamins that are derived from synthetic vitamins and minerals are more difficult for the body to digest, absorb, and utilize because the vitamins and minerals are typically offered in an inactive form. The best prenatal vitamins are derived from whole foods in order to facilitate easy use and absorption, since the body evolved to use nutrients received naturally through our diets. In addition to looking for a prenatal vitamin that contains the appropriate vitamins and minerals in a usable form, women should also pay attention to the manufacturing transparency associated with vitamin products. Prenatal vitamins that have a CGMP stamp of approval and are manufactured at an FDA-registered facility are subject to transparency and accountability during the manufacturing process, which means that you have more assurance that your vitamin contains the ingredients it says it does. Prenatal vitamins should also be free of artificial colors, sweeteners, and additives and should be free of common allergens like gluten, soy, dairy, peanuts, caffeine, yeast, and corn.