If you are asking yourself this question, the answer is most likely: now. If you fit into any of these categories, you should be taking a prenatal supplement:
- Not trying to get pregnant but want to someday
- Trying to conceive
- Already pregnant
- Been pregnant before and want to be pregnant in the future
On a whole, many women of childbearing age fit into one of these categories. Prenatal nutrition is all about preparing for pregnancy, supporting your body through pregnancy, and preparing for childbirth. As such, a supplement should be taken in all phases. A prenatal vitamin gives your body the nutritional tools it needs to endure pregnancy and childbirth. The more prepared you are, the better.
Why should you take a prenatal supplement?
Even the healthiest of people have nutritional gaps in their diet. And you want to fill those nutritional gaps during pregnancy by taking a prenatal supplement. The nutrition you receive during your pregnancy will affect your well-being and the growth and development of your baby.
A prenatal supplement not only supports your nutritional needs but can help prevent birth defects such as neural tube defects. A prenatal will also reduce the risk of complications such as
- Low birth weight
- Preterm birth
- Gestational diabetes
- Anemia, etc.
Taking a prenatal should not be seen as a suggestion but an absolute necessity during pregnancy. Your OBGYN will tell you to take one at your first prenatal appointment.
Dietary restrictions such as vegetarians, vegans, or those with specific food allergies are especially in need of a prenatal supplement.
Can’t you just eat for two?
The quick answer? No. It is true that you need more calories while pregnant—but you don’t need as many as you may think. Your calorie needs slowly rise during pregnancy but you only need 400 extra calories per day during your third trimester. That is equivalent to a few pieces of toast with some peanut butter. As such, eating for two is not the way to get the extra nutrition you need.
Your body will recognize that it needs more nutrition so it will become more efficient at absorbing nutrition from the food you eat. Eating double will only cause excessive prenatal weight gain and potentially cause other complications. Here are some ways you can get the nutrition you need without eating yourself sick:
Take a prenatal vitamin. In addition to a nutrient-rich diet, take a prenatal vitamin to fill in any nutritional components you are missing.
Following nutrition guidelines. Follow pregnancy-specific guidelines about weight gain for your weight and height and caloric intake. Also follow nutrition guidelines, such as those found on Choose My Plate, to figure out your protein, grain, fruit, and vegetable intake.
Cut out snacks that have low nutrition but high calories. These snacks may include chocolate chip cookies, potato chips, sugary sodas, or fried foods. This does not mean you can never indulge—pregnancy cravings are real. Just cut them out as much as you can.
When should you start?
Ideally, you will start taking a prenatal before you find out you are pregnant. If you are planning to conceive, start taking a supplement immediately. Don’t wait for your doctor to tell you to take one. At this point, you should strive to eat a diet that supplies the majority of the nutrients you need. But, while you are trying to conceive, you need to build up your nutritional stores to prepare for a potential pregnancy.
The first six weeks of pregnancy are critical in the development of your baby. However, it is during this time that most women do not realize they are even pregnant. And it is during this time that serious birth defects can be prevented. One of the most prominent examples is a neural tube defect. This is a defect of the spine, brain, or spinal cord and they occur during the first month of pregnancy. The most common is known as spina bifida—often causing paralysis in the baby.
Folate during those first few weeks of pregnancy is key to preventing neural tube defects. Which why taking a prenatal supplement that contains 800 mcg is essential. But if you don’t even know you are pregnant, what can you do? Start taking a prenatal BEFORE conception.
The nutrients often contained in prenatal vitamins are not only important during pregnancy but for your overall health. Here are some examples:
Folate: Promotes heart health and healthy cholesterol levels.
Calcium: Encourages strong bones and teeth and reduced the risk of osteoporosis and other bone conditions.
DHA: Essential to brain and heart health and has even been implicated in fighting depression
Vitamin C: One of the safest nutrients, vitamin C supports your immune system and helps fight sickness and infection.
Vitamin A: Promotes eye health, a strong immune system, and skin health.
So, once you decide you are ready to become pregnant, start taking a prenatal. It will not only benefit you and your baby during pregnancy but will promote your overall health.
What should you look for in your supplement?
Your doctor may or may not suggest the brand of prenatal vitamin you should choose. Which means you will have to do some research. There are innumerable options when it comes to prenatal supplements. How do you know which one to pick? There are a few things you can look for.
What are the ingredients?
The prenatal you choose should contain more than just folate (even though folate is extremely important). It should contain:
Iron: You need extra iron to keep up with the blood supply you and your baby need. During pregnancy, you have a higher likelihood of becoming anemic. Anemia caused by iron deficiency can cause dizziness, headache, shortness of breath, fatigue, and leg cramps. Severe anemia during pregnancy can lead to low birth weight for your baby.
Choline: This is nutrient is becoming more and more well-known because of its powerful properties concerning mental health and brain development. Taking choline while you are pregnant can positively affect your baby’s brain health during fetal development, into childhood and even into adulthood.
Omega-3s: Omega-3s such as DHA and EPA are essential components for healthy fetal brain development.
Calcium: Everyone knows that calcium supports strong bones and teeth. But calcium also helps prevent a pregnancy condition known as preeclampsia. Preeclampsia is defined by extremely high blood pressure and can even cause preterm birth.
Magnesium: Similar to calcium, magnesium also plays a role in reducing the risk of preeclampsia.
Zinc: This nutrient is essential to almost everything your body does. It is essential for fetal growth and development and continues to be important for milk production while breastfeeding.
Vitamin A: Your growing baby needs vitamin A in order to develop their heart, lungs, kidneys, and other important organs
Vitamin B6: While also helping reduce the risk of preeclampsia, this vitamin is essential for a developing nervous system.
Does the brand include the right amounts?
“Something is better than nothing”. You will probably hear this a lot while you are pregnant. Some exercise is better than none. Some nutrition is better than none. While we can’t argue that some nutrition is not better than none, there are specific recommended amounts during pregnancy. So, if you need 1,000mg of calcium during pregnancy, only taking 200mg won’t do much for you. This is especially true with nutrients like folate that help prevent birth defects.
Does it seem too good to be true?
Taking a lot of pills while pregnant isn’t always fun. That’s understandable. But, can a prenatal vitamin really give you everything you need in just one pill? Probably not. And if your prenatal claims to, it is probably too good to be true. Again, check the number of ingredients and if your prenatal has the right amounts.
Is it backed by anything?
Is your prenatal backed by anything sound? Does the brand provide any science or reasoning for the ingredients they choose? You don’t often hear science and supplement in the same sentence. That is because nutraceuticals (supplements) are rarely backed by anything substantial or evidence-based. However, supplements do exist that are backed by science—you just have to do your research.
The science will especially be important when choosing a prenatal supplement. You need to be choosy about you put in your body. So give yourself the nutritional good stuff!
Would your doctor recommend it?
Often, your doctor will not suggest a prenatal supplement. They will simply tell you to choose a prenatal vitamin. However, they will tell you to choose a quality prenatal supplement. And many are not quality.
When choosing your prenatal, ask yourself “Would my doctor consider this quality?”. If you have doubts, bring a few options to your next prenatal appointment. You can discuss supplement options with your doctor and they can help you weed through the gross stuff.
Additional Questions About Prenatal Supplements
Will they make me nauseous?
The bane of the first trimester. And for some, the bane of the entire pregnancy. One of the most common and yet awful symptoms. You will do ANYTHING to get rid of the nausea. So of course, if something is going to make you nauseous, you stay away from it. Except when it comes to a prenatal.
Prenatal supplements can contain many nutrients. Which is good, because you and your baby need it. But—that can cause some nausea. Iron, which is included in almost every prenatal supplement, is the main culprit. However, there are ways to help ease nausea.
- Take your prenatal immediately after you eat
- If your prenatal has more than one pill (which it should), take half in the morning and half in the evening
- Ask your doctor about an anti-nausea medication
- Sip on ginger ale
Should I keep taking one during postpartum?
Your nutritional well-being following pregnancy is extremely important. If you are breastfeeding, you continue to provide essential nutrition to your dependent child. And even if you aren’t, you are recovering from childbirth! Your body just went through almost ten months of pregnancy followed by labor and birth. Your nutritional stores have been depleted in order to support you through such an experience.
So, the postpartum period is the time to restock. Your physician will tell you to continue to take a prenatal vitamin. Which is great. But, your nutritional needs are a little different after pregnancy. Try taking a postnatal supplement that is designed for your needs after pregnancy. No matter what, you must continue to take a supplement.
This is a lot of information. But the amount of information correlates with the importance of taking a prenatal vitamin. Here is a quick summary:
If you are trying to conceive, start taking a prenatal. If you are already pregnant, take a prenatal supplement. Most women do not know they are pregnant until six weeks in; that is a crucial period in fetal development. So, start early.
Everyone has nutritional gaps in your diet. And without proper diet and supplementation, those gaps will increase during pregnancy. Close the gaps with a quality prenatal supplement.
You CANNOT just eat for two. It doesn’t work like that—even though it would be awesome if that were the case. You need a lot of extra nutrition but not too many extra calories. You should still stick to balanced meals and snacks instead of a whole box of donuts. But remember, indulge your cravings every now and then.
And because it can’t be said too many times, START BEFORE YOU ARE PREGNANT.
Do your research. Don’t just take the first prenatal vitamin you see on the shelf. Search around and be picky. Check the ingredients and make sure all the ingredients are necessary and not just random fillers. Make sure the supplement isn’t missing any key ingredients like choline.
While checking the ingredients, make sure you are getting the right amounts! Again, 200 mg of calcium is not enough to have an effect on the risk of preeclampsia. Make sure your choice has enough iron, folate, choline, calcium, and DHA.
Ask yourself: Does it seem too good to be true? Especially if the supplement only contains one pill. Would your doctor recommend it? Is it backed by anything meaningful, any science?
If you find your prenatal making you nauseous, take half in the morning and half at night. Take right after a meal.
Keep taking a supplement after pregnancy! Try and use a supplement designed for the postpartum period.