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Expecting the best: how to choose the best prenatal vitamins for your baby

Pregnancy is a transformational time, both physically and emotionally. Your body’s nutritional needs for some particular vitamins will increase, while other foods and supplements can pose a risk. Choosing a prenatal vitamin is important, and we’re here to make it as easy as possible. Read on to find out what makes a great prenatal vitamin -- which ingredients you should look for, and which you should avoid.

This little habit makes a big difference

Even if you have the ideal diet, it can be challenging to consistently get adequate amounts of all the vitamins and minerals needed over the duration of your pregnancy. This is especially true if you are suffering from a loss of appetite or nausea. Prenatal vitamins provide assurance that you and your baby are protected against complications and risks that can come with inadequate nutrition. Prenatal vitamins contain key vitamins and minerals to support the unique needs of an expecting mother and developing fetus. They are a simple and convenient way to fill the potential gaps in your nutritional intake.

You may also face some dietary restrictions while pregnant, so taking prenatals and other supplements can help make up for it. Many pregnant women lower their intake of fish, which contains omega-3 fatty acids. In this case, taking a fish oil or vegetarian-friendly algae oil supplement is a great way to increase omega-3 levels. Other supplements that can help while pregnant include probiotics, which are not a part of most prenatal vitamins.

Vitamins and supplements are a wise addition to your prenatal health routine, but no supplement can replace a balanced diet. While you may lack an appetite during parts of your pregnancy, it is important to strive for a varied diet, including the occasional craving.

Who should take a prenatal?

The short answer? Every pregnant woman! It is even recommended that you take a prenatal vitamin if you plan to become pregnant within the next 6 months to a year.

Why? The first few weeks of a pregnancy are a critical period of embryonic development. During this stage, vital systems like the brain, spinal cord, heart, and blood vessels, all begin to form. Yet, this all begins before many women even realize that they are pregnant.

If you have a dietary restriction, like vegetarianism or lactose intolerance, this advice is especially important. Women managing a chronic disease, or recovering from an eating disorder, are also at increased risk of nutritional deficiencies. A history of substance abuse, including alcohol and cigarettes, also indicate a greater need for dietary supplementation.

The most important nutrients to take during pregnancy, and why

The unique needs of your body will vary according to your combination of diet, lifestyle, health goals, and history. But, there are some established guidelines for supplementation during pregnancy.

Due to their ability to prevent common birth defects, calcium, folic acid, iodine, and iron are common ingredients in prenatal vitamins. Continue reading to find out how these nutrients protect you and your baby from serious risks.

Folic acid promotes brain and spinal cord development

Folic acid is a nutrient you often hear about in relation to prenatal vitamins. It is a B-vitamin necessary for the formation of cells, which is critical for the development of the brain and spinal cord. Pregnant women require 400 to 800 mcg of folate throughout pregnancy, and it is especially important during the early stages.

A study published by the Journal of the American Medical Association, found that supplementing with folic acid reduced the risk of neural tube defects by 72%. Neural tube defects are among the most common birth defects. This makes folic acid one of the key nutrients to begin taking prior to conception.

If you have diabetes, epilepsy, or an autoimmune disease, be sure to ask your doctor about folic acid supplements. You should also consult a doctor if you've had a child with a birth defect in the past. Based on these conditions, a doctor may want to prescribe a higher dose of folic acid or other supplements.

Iron reduces the risk of premature birth

Iron is a mineral necessary for the development of red blood cells, which transport oxygen through the blood. Insufficient iron levels can decrease the amount of oxygen available to the cells of important organs. Iron deficiency is often accompanied by feelings of fatigue.

During pregnancy, the volume of blood plasma and red blood cell production will increase, which in turn increases a woman’s iron needs during pregnancy. According to the National Institute of Health, the risks associated with iron deficiency during pregnancy are serious. These can include premature birth, low birth weight, and more.

The good news is that women can get adequate iron in their diet (about 20-30mg) by regularly eating quality meat and animal products. But, if you are vegetarian or you’ve experienced anemia in the past, consult a doctor about how much iron you need as part of your supplementation.

Taking a prenatal vitamin with a relatively low dose of iron can be a safer option, as excessive intake carries the risk of side effects, like constipation and nausea.

Calcium supports healthy bone development

It’s recommended that pregnant women get a total of 1000mg of calcium per day. That is roughly the equivalent of three 8-oz. glasses of milk. Since the average woman only consumes about 800mg of calcium through her diet, doctors often recommend a supplement.

A developing fetus will need anywhere between 50 and 330 mg of calcium each day to support skeletal growth, and it’s in everybody’s best interest to make sure those little bones are strong and healthy! Inadequate calcium intake can negatively affect skeletal development.

In clinical studies, calcium supplementation also decreased the likelihood of a prenatal form of hypertension, known as preeclampsia. This condition is common, affecting approximately 5–8% of US pregnancies, according to the National Institute of Health. Preeclampsia usually develops after 20 weeks of gestation, and can have serious consequences for both mother and child.

Iodine is crucial for skeletal and neurological development

Iodine is essential to the healthy function of the thyroid gland, which regulates many of the body’s biochemical reactions. In fetuses, iodine is also necessary for proper skeletal and neurological development.

Most of us get our iodine from fish, dairy and salt. But, since a woman’s need for iodine increases significantly during pregnancy, it may make sense to consider iodine supplements. This is especially true for pregnant women who are vegetarian or vegan.

For pregnant women, the recommended daily intake of iodine is 220 mcg, compared to 150mcg for non-pregnant adults. The American Thyroid Association recommends that pregnant and nursing women supplement with 150 mcg (micrograms) of iodine.

Severe iodine deficiency during pregnancy comes with risks, potentially impacting neurological development and physical growth. Due to these risks, salt manufacturers began adding iodine to table salt in the 1920’s at the urging of the FDA. Although this practice continues today, you may not get all the iodine you need from salt, especially if you limit your sodium intake.

Vitamin D supports proper calcium absorption

Ah, the sunshine vitamin. Vitamin D is important for everyone. It actually helps your body absorb calcium, making it an important vitamin for bone health. It also regulates cell growth, supports immune function and reduces inflammation. Vitamin D and calcium work in tandem, and strong clinical research supports their importance to pregnant women.

If you are like most Americans, you probably aren’t getting the necessary levels of vitamin D. This is even true of people who live in sunnier climates. Most people simply don’t spend enough time outdoors to produce the vitamin D they need from the sun. Pregnancy and breastfeeding do not dramatically increase your vitamin D requirements, so you only need to supplement if you already suspect you are deficient.

The National Institute of Health considers 600 IUs (International Units) of vitamin D a sufficient daily intake, so keep an eye out for a prenatal that includes this amount.

Choline supports neural fetal development

Choline is a nutrient required at the cellular level to maintain the cell’s structure. Additionally, it is a precursor to acetylcholine, an important neurotransmitter for regulating memory, mood, and muscle control. Due to emerging clinical research, it has gained a reputation as a "smart drug."

It is commonly found in meat, dairy, and eggs. Good vegetarian sources of choline include beans, nuts, seeds, and whole grains. Cruciferous vegetables, such as brussel sprouts, cauliflower, and broccoli, are also good sources of choline.

Choline has a special role when it comes to fetal health. But, many women who are expecting don’t get enough of it. Despite the prevalence of choline in common foods, a 2014 study estimated that up to 95% of pregnant women do not consume adequate levels of choline. Despite these findings, many prenatal vitamins still do not include choline as an ingredient.

Research demonstrating the importance of choline for fetal development is growing. In early pregnancy, choline appears to decrease the risk of neural tube defects, much like folic acid. Choline is also important in later stages of pregnancy, when the memory center of the fetus' brain is developing. Early research also suggests that greater choline intake during pregnancy could provide an infant with life-long protection against certain metabolic and mental diseases.

For pregnant women 19 years old and over, the established Upper Intake Level (UL) for safe choline consumption is set at 3,500 mg. With adequate intake set at just 450 mg, that provides a large range to safely include choline in your prenatal vitamin.

What vitamins and supplements to avoid during pregnancy

Choosing the right prenatal vitamins can address your unique nutritional needs. When supplementing, keep in mind that too much of a good thing is possible.

Be sure that you don't supplement excessively with vitamins A, D, E, and K, which are all fat-soluble. Unlike water-soluble vitamins, which are easily excreted by the body, fat-soluble vitamins can accumulate, potentially leading to toxicity and unwanted side effects.

Be sure to consult your physician about any herbal supplements you are taking. Some botanical supplements will have a negative impact on your pregnancy, despite the perception that "natural" or “herbal” equates to safe. Some substances found in certain herbs can pose serious risks, including premature birth. The American Pregnancy Association has provided a helpful list of herbs to avoid while pregnant.

The combination of a great prenatal vitamin and a healthy diet can meet nearly all your nutritional needs during your pregnancy, but knowing what exactly to take is key. You can learn more about the best prenatal supplements for you, given your stage of pregnancy, here.