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Prenatal vitamins: Why they matter, how to choose
Prenatal vitamins are an important part of pregnancy nutrition. Here's why.
When to Start Taking Prenatal Vitamins: Why Earlier Is Best
If you're wondering when to start taking prenatal vitamins, it's probably time. We'll tell you why earlier is better.
When Should You Start Prenatal Vitamins? Earlier Than You Think
Medically reviewed by Debra Rose Wilson, Ph.D., MSN, R.N., IBCLC, AHN-BC, CHT — Written by Sarah Bradley on June 12, 2020
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There are a lot of limits on the types of medications and supplements you can take during pregnancy — but prenatal vitamins are not only allowed, they’re strongly recommended.
A good prenatal can help keep you and your growing baby healthy, ensuring that you’re both getting all the nutrients you need to make it through those 9 codependent months of pregnancy.
If prenatal vitamins are for you and baby, though, why do so many healthcare providers tell women to start taking them before pregnancy? Is that safe to do? Also, have you checked out the vitamin aisle lately? It’s chock-full of options.
Don’t stress — we’ve got you covered.
When should you start taking prenatal vitamins?
There are two answers here, but (spoiler alert!) neither involves waiting until your first trimester ultrasound.
When you decide to try for a pregnancy
Ready to start a family? In addition to scheduling a well visit with your gynecologist, quitting birth control, and cutting out unhealthy behaviors like smoking, you should start taking prenatal vitamins.
You won’t be able to predict how long it will take you to get pregnant — it could be weeks or months — and you won’t know you’ve been successful until a few weeks after conception. Prenatal vitamins are an important part of preconception care.
As soon as you find out you’re pregnant
If you aren’t already taking prenatal vitamins, you should start as soon as you get a positive pregnancy sign on that pee stick test.
Your OB-GYN may eventually suggest a specific brand or even offer you a prescription to make your vitamin-popping life easier, but you don’t have to wait — every day counts when you’re in the first trimester (more on why in a sec).
Why take them before you’re even pregnant?
Here’s the deal: Pregnancy takes a lot of you. Your cute little fetus is actually a major drain on your body’s natural resources, which is why you spend so much time in those 9 months feeling nauseated, exhausted, achy, crampy, moody, weepy, and forgetful.
Your baby gets all the nutrients it needs directly from you, so it’s easy to become deficient in important vitamins and minerals during pregnancy. Making sure your body has what it needs to nourish both of you is much easier if you get started before baby is in the picture.
Think of it like building up a reserve: If you have more than enough of the vitamins and nutrients you need to thrive, then you can afford to share those vitamins and nutrients with your baby as they grow.
What are the most important nutrients in prenatals, especially for the first month of pregnancy?
While it’s important to have a well-rounded balance of vitamins and nutrients during pregnancy, some are truly MVPs because they actually help your baby form vital organs and body systems, many of which begin developing in the earliest weeks of pregnancy.
According to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG), these are the most important nutrients you need:
The granddaddy of prenatal nutrients, this B vitamin is responsible for creating your baby’s neural tube, or the structure that eventually forms the brain and spinal column. Without a fully developed neural tube, a baby could be born with spina bifida or anencephaly.
Thankfully, the experts
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are all in agreement here: Folic acid supplements significantly increase the likelihood of healthy neural tube growth. The American Academy of Pediatrics has long held the position that folic acid can reduce neural tube defects by at least 50 percent.
The only catch? The neural tube closes within the first 4 weeks after conception, which is often before or right after a woman realizes she’s pregnant.
Because folic acid is so effective — but only if you’re getting enough at just the right time — the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
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recommends that all sexually active women of childbearing age take 400 micrograms (mcg) of folic acid daily (either in a prenatal vitamin or an individual supplement).
That way, you’ll have it when you need it — even if you’re not expecting to! Once you’ve confirmed a pregnancy, you’ll need at least 600 mcg per day.
Iron supplies the fetus with blood and oxygen, helps build the placenta, and gives you the extra blood volume you need throughout pregnancy. Since pregnant women are prone to anemia, iron supplementation also ensures that you have the right amount of red blood cells in your blood.
Anemia during pregnancy is associated with higher rates of premature delivery and low infant birth weight.
Your baby is spending a lot of time in your uterus building up their bones and teeth. In order to achieve this Herculean feat, they need plenty of calcium — which means you need plenty of calcium, too.
Protect Your Pregnancy Before You Conceive
Thinking about getting pregnant? Here’s what to do in the weeks and months before you conceive to protect your baby-to-be.
Pregnancy Feature Stories
Protect Your Pregnancy Before You Conceive
By Stephanie Booth
Reviewed by Traci C. Johnson, MD on December 18, 2017
FROM THE WEBMD ARCHIVES
Many women know they need to take extra care of their health during pregnancy. But if you know you want to try to have a baby, it’s a good idea for you and your partner to start making some changes about 6 months before you actually get pregnant.
That “creates the foundation for a healthy pregnancy and healthy baby,” says Sherry Ross, MD, an OB/GYN at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, CA.
Go through this to-do list as you’re getting your body ready for baby.
Stop Lighting Up
Smoking makes it harder for you and your partner to get pregnant. “Men who smoke have a lower sperm count and abnormal-shaped sperm,” Ross says.
Pregnant women who smoke are more likely to miscarry. Your baby may also be born too early or have a low birth weight, which can cause other severe health problems. Your child’s odds of having sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) also go up if you use tobacco.
And although e-cigarettes may have fewer toxins, they still have nicotine, which prevents a baby’s brain and lungs from growing the way they should. You’ll need to stop using them, too.
It’s best to start early -- it often takes about 30 tries to kick the habit for good.
Watch Your Weight
Being overweight or underweight makes it tougher for you to conceive. The closer you are to a healthy weight before pregnancy, the less likely you are to have problems like diabetes and high blood pressure. It also lowers the chances that your baby will be born too early, have spinal defects, or grow larger than normal inside you, says Randy Fiorentino, MD, an OB/GYN with St. Joseph Hospital in Orange, CA.
Know your BMI (body mass index) and a good weight for your body type. Regular exercise can help you reach your goals. So will a diet that’s mostly vegetables, fruits, lean protein, low-fat dairy, and whole grains. Need help cleaning up your diet? Talk to your doctor or a nutritionist.
Take Your Vitamins
Doctors used to tell women to take folic acid as soon as they got pregnant. Now, experts suggest starting a prenatal vitamin with 400 micrograms of folic acid before you try to have a baby. This important nutrient prevents spinal defects in growing babies.
See if your prenatal vitamin has DHA. This type of omega-3 fatty acid can help the health of your baby once you get pregnant. You need 200 milligrams of it every day during pregnancy. Some prenatal vitamins have it, but not all of them. So ask your doctor if you should take a separate DHA supplement.
Your doctor could also suggest extra vitamin D. If you’re low, you may have trouble getting pregnant in the first place.
Find Out Your Family History
Have any of your family members had a child born with birth defects, diabetes, seizure disorders, or developmental issues? Now’s the time to find out and let your doctor know. It will affect what tests they suggest you have.
For instance, Tay-Sachs is a rare disorder that affects the brain and spinal cord. It’s most common in people of Ashkenazi (Eastern and Central European) Jewish heritage. If it runs in your or your partner’s family, a blood test can tell if you or your partner carries the gene for the condition, and the chances that you’ll pass it on to your child.
Stop Drug and Alcohol Use
Illegal drugs like cocaine and meth (methamphetamine) have chemicals that are harmful during your planning period, Ross says. The same is true for marijuana, even though it’s legal in some states.
Men who smoke weed, for instance, have a lower amount of sperm for weeks after they stop. Women who smoke have a harder time getting pregnant than nonsmokers.
Heavy alcohol use (8 or more drinks a week or 4 at once) also affects your fertility. It’s not clear whether the occasional beer or glass of wine affects your chances of getting pregnant. But experts say your safest bet is to give up booze completely when you’re trying to conceive. There’s no safe amount of alcohol for a growing baby, and you may not know that you’re pregnant for a few weeks or months.
Cut the Caffeine
More than 500 milligrams of caffeine (about 3 to 4 cups of coffee) each day may cause trouble when you try to conceive. One study found that women and their partners who have more than two caffeinated drinks each day in the weeks before getting pregnant were more likely to miscarry. While smaller amounts of caffeine every day may not be harmful, “we counsel our patients to avoid it if possible,” Fiorentino says.
Talk to Your Doctor
If you have a medical condition, let your health care provider know you want to start trying for a baby. “The more we know about your health conditions, the more we can optimize them prior to pregnancy and lower the effect they may have on your baby,” Fiorentino says.
Your doctor will also need to know all the medicines and supplements you take, including prescription drugs and anything you buy over the counter. If any will pose a risk to your unborn baby, they can suggest others.
Don’t Rely on 'Dr. Google'
While it’s easy to jump online to find instant answers to any questions you have, “the Internet is full of myths regarding pregnancy and prenatal care,” Fiorentino says. “Many … opinions broadcast by social media storm can quickly turn from myth to ‘fact.’ ”