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Mom Matters

Expert advice on the best prenatal vitamins, when to start taking them and for how long— Even if you’re not pregnant

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If you’re a new mom, chances are, you’ve been taking prenatal vitamins for a long time—like maybe even a year or longer. And, if so, good for you! In fact, the American College of Gynecology (ACOG) recommends women start taking a prenatal vitamin at least 1 month, but ideally three months, prior to getting pregnant. This is to ensure that you’re getting your fair share of key nutrients that help facilitate a healthy pregnancy for you and baby. So what exactly are prenatal vitamins and why are they so important before, during and after pregnancy?

Can you take prenatal vitamins without being pregnant?

If you’re a planner, you can start on prenatals once you’re thinking of getting pregnant (talk to your doctor about when is best). Even with the recommendation to start on them three months prior to pregnancy, we know that most pregnancies aren’t planned (51%), so it’s understandable if you don’t start your prenatals until you see those two lines staring back at you on that pregnancy test. What matters most is that you start taking a prenatal as soon as you do find out that you’re expecting, and continue to do so for the rest of your pregnancy and beyond, if you are nursing. 

Prenatal vitamins for pregnancy

If you’re wondering what all the fuss is about when it comes to prenatal vitamins—or what’s actually in them that makes them so important—you’re in good company. When it comes to pregnancy, many moms are instructed to follow certain rules without questioning a thing. It’s totally normal to want to understand everything there is to know about, well, everything. Here, we’re offering you a refresher course on prenatal vitamins, because we think it’s important that you’re in the know. 

Prenatal vitamins with folic acid

“One of the most important aspects of taking a vitamin in the preconception phase is to make sure you have sufficient folate, as this helps to prevent neural tube defects,” says Jane Van Dis, MD, OB/GYN, and Bobbie medical advisor. “Additionally, important vitamins and minerals to look for are iron (to help with red blood cell formation), vitamin D3 and calcium (for bone health), choline (to help with brain and spinal cord formation), along with vitamins A, C, B6 and B12.

What are prenatal vitamins?

Put simply, prenatal vitamins are certain supplements that are formulated with all the vitamins and minerals that pregnant women need before, during and after pregnancy. “Think of prenatal vitamins as a nutrition insurance plan for yourself and the baby, even if you have a good diet,” says food scientist Taylor Wallace, Ph.D., C.F.S., F.A.C.N. “Don’t wait to get pregnant before starting to take a prenatal vitamin.

Should women take prenatal vitamins while breastfeeding?

Dr Wallace says YES! Often the body strips a woman’s body to nourish the infant, so again, it’s good to have a nutrition insurance plan. And if a breastfeeding woman is pregnant again, he still says yes—absolutely— the rules don’t change. She should take the prenatals while breastfeeding and throughout.

What nutrients do prenatal vitamins contain?

Most prenatal vitamins are formulated with many of the same vitamins and minerals that you will find in a standard multivitamin—vitamins D, C, A, B12, and E, thiamine, riboflavin, niacin, zinc, iodine, sometimes iron and always folic acid, which has been linked to a reduction in major birth defects such as anencephaly and spina bifida, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). 

It’s worth pointing out, however, that, like most things in life, not all prenatal vitamins are created equal. “Prenatal vitamins brands vary in their vitamin and mineral composition and quantities, and there are, unfortunately, no government standards for what a prenatal vitamin must contain,” warns Dr. Wallace. For this reason, he urges expecting parents to be savvy consumers. 

Which is the best prenatal vitamins?

The most important thing you can do is choose a prenatal vitamin with 100 percent of the Daily Value (DV) of folic acid to decrease the risk of neural tube defects in the baby Dr. Wallace explains. “Most neural tube defects occur during the first month of pregnancy, so again, don’t just start taking a prenatal vitamin once you have become pregnant,” he says. He recommends starting the regimen at least one month prior to becoming pregnant.  

Unfortunately, many prenatal vitamins are formulated without the inclusion of iron, a key nutrient that helps your body create blood to supply oxygen to the baby. What’s more: An estimated 40 percent of all pregnant women are iron deficient at the start of their pregnancy, according to recent research published in the Oman Medical Journal, which is even more of an incentive for pregnant women to ensure they’re supplementing with this all-important nutrient. 

Prenatal vitamins with choline

Choline is an important nutrient that’s not always found in prenatal vitamins, according to Dr. Wallace. “American Medical Association (AMA) recommends prenatal supplementation with choline, however this can be a bulky nutrient and most prenatal vitamins do not contain sufficient amounts so taking a separate choline supplement can help meet the recommendation. The same can be said for calcium, magnesium, and the omega-3 fatty acids DHA and EPA.

Can you take prenatal vitamins in gummy form?

According to Dr Wallace, gummy vitamins typically contain fewer nutrients, so it’s easier to miss something important. Plus, many have added sugars. Pill form is ideal since it can fit more of the essentials.

Tips for taking your prenatal vitamin

Considering you might not be feeling 100 percent (or even close to it) during pregnancy—especially in those first few months—knowing when and how to take your prenatal vitamin can make a world of a difference. 

First things first: Dr. Wallace recommends taking your prenatal vitamin with food to avoid any stomach upset that can occur with larger doses of iron and zinc. “Consuming supplements with food allows for the gradual absorption of nutrients, which is likely healthier for you and minimizes risk of stomach upset,” he says. “If you’re taking multiple supplements make sure to pass that by your MD or Registered Dietitian Nutritionist (RDN) to ensure you aren’t getting too much.”

Best time to take prenatal vitamins

You might also want to take your prenatal vitamin at nighttime so that it’s easier on your stomach. Not only will you likely have food and water in your belly, but you will also be lying down in bed so you don’t have to worry about movement making you queasy. So long as those nutrients are being absorbed by your body, it doesn’t matter what time of day you consume them. 

Try a few different brands. Sometimes it can take trial and error to find the right prenatal vitamin for you. Luckily, there are no shortage of brands out there on the market, many of which offer quality nutrients.

Best prenatal vitamins

The best prenatal vitamins are those that have vitamins D, A, C, B12, and E, thiamine, riboflavin, niacin, zinc, iodine and folic acid. The below brands are just a few of the most common prenatal vitamin brands available on the market. Dr Wallace recommends opting for recognized national brands vs. random products online and to read the ingredient labels carefully.

The content on this site is for informational purposes only and not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Discuss any health or feeding concerns with your infant's pediatrician. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay it based on the content on this page.
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The content on this site is for informational purposes only and not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Discuss any health or feeding concerns with your infant’s pediatrician. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay it based on the content on this page.

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Meet the Expert

Jenn Sinrich

Jenn Sinrich is an experienced writer, digital and social editor and content strategist in Boston, Massachusetts. She's written for several publications including SELF, Women's Health, Martha Stewart Weddings, Reader's Digest, PureWow, and many more. She covers various topics, from health and fitness to love and sex.