Building a healthy baby is a nutrient-intensive activity. A good overall diet that emphasizes fruits and vegetables will give your baby the best start possible, but most clinicians also recommend prenatal vitamins.
Why vitamins? Being pregnant means you need more vitamins, but not necessarily a lot more calories. Adding prenatal vitamins can help get the nutrients you need without spending all your waking hours eating leafy greens. Talking to your doctor and being honest about your eating habits will help you map out a healthy path ahead.
Important Vitamins During Pregnancy
Even under the best of circumstances, some nutrients may be difficult to get in the right amounts without going overboard. Key requirements that can be hardest to meet through diet alone include:
How much you need: 27 milligrams
What it does: Iron is important for the development of red blood cells and the placenta that feeds the fetus. Nearly one in five women experience iron deficiency during pregnancy, with the highest prevalence during the third trimester.
How to get it: Meat, poultry, and fish provide the most easily absorbable iron. Iron is also present in some plant foods, but is less bioavailable. You can also increase your iron consumption by cooking in cast iron pans. Eating too much dairy or caffeine can inhibit iron absorption. Pregnant women should increase iron consumption by about 15 to 30 milligrams a day. Larger amounts may be necessary for women with iron deficiency. Most doctors recommend an iron supplement during pregnancy. If you experience nausea from iron supplements, ask your doctor about alternative approaches.
How much you need: 250 milligrams
Why it's important: You're making bone matter for both yourself and your baby during pregnancy and breastfeeding, so getting enough calcium is more important than ever. About one in four pregnant women don't get as much calcium as they should.
How to get it: If you have milk with your cereal or a cup of yogurt as a snack on a daily basis, you're all set. Even most milk substitutes are fortified with calcium. Green, leafy veggies (like broccoli, collard greens, kale, bok choy), sesame seeds, almonds, figs, beans, and sweet potatoes all also supply calcium. Salt, protein, caffeine, and phosphorus (found in colas and other dark sodas) can all decrease calcium absorption when consumed in excess.
Folate (Folic Acid)
How much you need: .4 to .8 milligrams
Why it's important: Folate is essential for the growing fetus, especially your baby's spinal cord and brain. Much of this development takes place in the first weeks of pregnancy, so doctors recommend taking a prenatal vitamin with folate even before conception.
How to get it: Beans, green and leafy vegetables, and orange juice all contain folate. It's also added to some common foods, such as bread, cereal, and pasta. But experts agree that taking prenatal vitamins with folate is necessary to get this critical nutrient.
How much you need: .015 milligrams
Why it's important: Vitamin D works with calcium to build bones and teeth. It also helps develop healthy eyes and skin.
How to get it: The sun is our best source of vitamin D. Just five to 30 minutes of sun exposure may be enough, depending on conditions. But too much sun can undo the benefits. Food sources include fish like salmon or sardines. Dairy products are also often fortified with vitamin D.
Finding the Right Vitamin
Not all prenatal vitamins are created equal. In addition to the classic pill, you can also get gel caps, chewables, liquid, or even powder. Your doctor may prescribe a specific prenatal vitamin, or you can buy them over the counter at a drug or grocery store. If you select one on your own, show it to your doctor to make sure it has the right combination of essential vitamins.
Some women find that prenatal vitamins cause nausea or make morning sickness worse. Taking the vitamin with a snack, at night, or split into two doses can help. If that doesn't work, talk to your doctor. Adding vitamin B6 might help relieve morning sickness.
Making informed health choices during pregnancy will set you — and your family — up for healthy habits that can last a lifetime.