When and How to Take Prenatal Vitamins

Why they are important for your baby and how to reduce side effects

Woman holding vitamins
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A prenatal vitamin is a multivitamin that is designed with pregnancy and breastfeeding in mind. The amount of vitamins and minerals in these supplements are safe and appropriate when trying to conceive, during pregnancy, and postpartum while you are breastfeeding. Some specialized prenatal vitamins may also have other pregnancy-related additives, including DHA (which is an omega-3 fatty acid).

Why Should I Take Prenatal Vitamins?

Prenatal vitamins are like a nutrition safety net that help you maintain the vitamins and minerals your body needs to grow a healthy baby and sustain your pregnancy.

They work best when supported by good nutrition.

The most noted example of the benefits of taking prenatal vitamins is the fact that they help you get more folic acid. When taken prior to pregnancy, prenatal vitamins with folic acid can help drastically reduce the incidence of neural tube defects like spina bifida and anencephaly.

Other vitamins and minerals of importance in pregnancy include iron, calcium, vitamin D, DHA, and iodine. Your body needs twice as much iron as usual during pregnancy to build red cells to bring oxygen to the growing baby. You need 1000 milligrams of calcium per day as your baby develops its bones, teeth, and muscles. Vitamin D helps the body absorb calcium. Iodine is needed for the development of your baby's brain and nervous system.

When to Start Taking Prenatal Vitamins

Ideally, you would begin taking prenatal vitamins a few months before you wanted to try to conceive.

Taking them once you stop using birth control and begin to try in earnest would be beneficial. However, about half of all pregnancies are unplanned. This is why folic acid, specifically, and a multi-vitamin, in general, is recommended for all women of childbearing age, even when they are not trying to get pregnant.

How to Take Prenatal Vitamins

Prenatal vitamins can come in many forms: pills, capsules, and even liquids. Discuss with your doctor or midwife which is easiest for you to take. Depending on which prenatal vitamin you have chosen, you may take it once a day or multiple times per day. Follow the instructions provided to gain the maximum benefits. For example, many vitamins work best when taken with water and on an empty stomach with no food consumed for about an hour following.

Choosing a Prenatal Vitamin

Whether pill, capsule, or liquid is best is a personal choice. The biggest determinant should be how well you tolerate the vitamin.

Another factor may be cost. You can get a prescription for a prenatal vitamin from most doctors or midwives, but generic brands are often just as good. If you have a prescription, your insurance may be more likely to pay, but check your plan since some insurers cover generic vitamins as well. Even if insurance doesn't cover the over-the-counter version consider whether the copayment on a prescription vitamin is more than the full cost of a vitamin off the shelf.

Possible Side Effects of Prenatal Vitamins

There are many women who claim to experience prenatal vitamin side effects.

Some women complain that prenatal vitamins cause them to be constipated or have an upset stomach. This may be due to their pregnancy or the actual medication. Switching to a lower dose of iron may reduce constipation. If you need to stay with a special brand or dose for a specific problem, like anemia, your practitioner may ask you to simply alleviate constipation with dietary changes or other medications.

Sometimes morning sickness is a problem with prenatal vitamins. If you find that your stomach is upset when you take the vitamins, try a different time of day (such as at bedtime) or a different prenatal vitamin.

You can also cut them in half and take half in the morning and the other half at night.

Do I Have to Take Prenatal Vitamins?

Some mothers choose not to take prenatal vitamins. They may stick to previous multivitamins, which should be done after clearing them with their practitioner. An example of things to look for would be the amount of vitamin A in your supplement. Too much vitamin A can cause birth defects.

Other mothers find that switching to children's vitamins eases some of the complaints about the prenatal vitamins. They may also come in a variety of styles. The chewable vitamins or gummy type vitamins are an option.

Sources:

Morning Sickness. MedlinePlus. https://medlineplus.gov/ency/patientinstructions/000604.htm.

Prenatal Vitamins. Mayo Clinic. https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/pregnancy-week-by-week/in-depth/prenatal-vitamins/art-20046945?p=1

Vitamins and Other Nutrients During Pregnancy. March of Dimes. https://www.marchofdimes.org/pregnancy/vitamins-and-other-nutrients-during-pregnancy.aspx.

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