The Role of Prenatal Vitamins in Pregnancy

Most women who are trying to conceive or are already pregnant need prenatal vitamins. In the early 1970s, vitamin companies started adding folic acid to their multivitamins and then marketing them specifically to pregnant women. Actually, a prenatal vitamin is a multivitamin for pregnant women. The body of a pregnant woman needs greater amounts of such nutrients like folate, calcium, DHA, and iron. A prenatal vitamin is required to maintain a healthy pregnancy by meeting the nutritional needs of a future mother.

The difference between a regular multivitamin and a prenatal vitamin

It can be difficult to recognize the differences between a regular multivitamin and a prenatal vitamin. A vitamin manufacturer classifies a vitamin as a prenatal when its nutrient content meets the nutrient needs of pregnant women, including increased content of folic acid, calcium, vitamin D, fish oil, and iron. Also, prenatal vitamins may contain less of the fat-soluble vitamin A than regular multivitamins. 

Side effects of prenatal vitamins

As regular vitamins, prenatal vitamins may have side effects. The most common side effects of prenatal vitamins are nausea and constipation. However, these side effects can be managed by changing the form or brand of the prenatal vitamin or changing  the time in which the vitamin is taken.

Who needs to take a prenatal vitamin?

It’s still unknown whether prenatal vitamins are necessary for every pregnant woman. Many specialists think that if a pregnant woman maintains a healthy diet and is sure to meet the increased nutrient needs during pregnancy, then taking a prenatal vitamin is not necessary. The American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists doesn’t claim that each pregnant woman needs to take a prenatal vitamin but do recommend taking folic acid and calcium. However, most specialists agree that taking prenatal vitamins is a good practice in supporting a healthy pregnancy, which may help prevent birth defects. In any case, it’s better to consult your physician and gynecologist before starting supplementation. 

Do women need prenatal vitamins if they’re not planning a pregnancy? 

A prenatal vitamin is very much like a multivitamin and it may be safe for most people to take, but it increases the risk of hypervitaminosis, which can cause many dangerous health issues. A common reason women take prenatal vitamins other than pregnancy is a desire to improve hair growth but research doesn’t support this theory. 

When to start taking prenatal vitamins?

Women who are trying to conceive need to consider taking a prenatal vitamin or at least supplement of folic acid after consulting a physician. Folic acid is crucial during the first four weeks of pregnancy to prevent birth defects since this is the time of neural tube formation. Specialists recommend 600 mcg of folic acid before conception and through the first 12 weeks of pregnancy. 

Folic acid

Prenatal vitamins usually contain 400 – 800 mcg of folic acid per one serving. There has been controversy about which form of this vitamin pregnant women need. The two forms up for discussion are folate (naturally occurring) or acid (the synthetic form of folate). Some research suggests that folic acid is better absorbed than folate but many specialists believe that folic acid is less useful. Keep in mind that too much folic acid can lead to dangerous side effects. The CDC recommends the upper limit for folic acid at 1,000 mg per day. 

Vitamin D

Vitamin D is essential for bone health and growth, normal hormone levels, maintaining the immune system, and brain health. Vitamin D is required for the healthy development of the baby and can also prevent pregnancy complications like pre-eclampsia. A prenatal vitamin should contain at minimal 600 IU of vitamin D.


Iron is one of the most vital nutrients during pregnancy for supplying oxygen to the fetus. An iron supplement is often blamed for such side effects as nausea and constipation, but it doesn’t mean that you have to quit your prenatal just yet—there are ways around that. Taking a prenatal with rich in vitamin C foods and drinks can improve iron absorption and relieve constipation. The daily recommended dose of iron during pregnancy is 27 mg.


Calcium is an essential nutrient for keeping the proper development of a baby’s bones and teeth and avoiding dental problems in a pregnant woman. A pregnant woman needs to take at least 1,000 mg of calcium per day.

Fish oil

Omega-3 fish oil is needed for the normal development of a baby’s brain, eyes, and nervous system. The human body is not able to synthesize this essential nutrient and hence we need to obtain it from diet or supplementation. Since many pregnant women often don’t consume enough fish, they need to get this nutrient from additional supplementation. However, not all prenatal vitamins contain fish oil, so it is important to think of this nutrient when choosing your vitamin.

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