Facts About Prenatal Vitamins

Pregnant woman's belly and her hands holding vitamins

The Image Bank / Getty Images

When discussing family planning with your doctor, they will probably ask whether you are taking a prenatal vitamin or if you would like a prescription for one. Prenatal vitamins are specially formulated supplements designed to help a pregnant person get the proper vitamins and minerals needed to support their body and their growing baby.

In particular, pregnant people need extra folate (400 mcg to 800 mcg per day) to prevent certain birth defects, iron (27 mg) to protect against anemia, and calcium (1,000 mg) to preserve maternal bone density. Many obstetricians also recommend that pregnant people take at least 200 mg of docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) daily.

What You Need to Know

There are many misconceptions about prenatal vitamins. Here are some of the most important facts to know.

Prenatal Vitamins Don't Replace Healthy Eating

Some pregnant people believe they don't have to concern themselves with eating healthy as long as they take a prenatal vitamin. This is not true.

The goal of prenatal vitamins is to supplement a nutritious diet, not to replace it. In fact, prenatal vitamins work better when you are eating a balanced diet that includes a variety of nutritious foods.

Prenatal vitamins don't cover all of a pregnant person's nutritional needs. For example, a pregnant person needs about 1,200 mg to 1,500 mg of calcium a day. However, most prenatal vitamins only contain 250 mg. The rest should come from foods or an additional supplement.

Prescription Vitamins Aren't Always Better

Not all vitamins are created equal. Many vitamins that are available by prescription are also available over the counter, but that doesn't make one more effective than the other.

The main difference is the cost and who is paying for it. Prescription prenatal vitamins are typically covered by insurance companies. Over-the-counter vitamins are not covered by insurance and need to be paid out of pocket.

You May Not Need a Prenatal Vitamin

Most doctors recommend their pregnant patients take vitamin supplements, but they do not need to be specifically formulated for pregnancy. There are also some good multivitamins available that are safe during pregnancy.

In choosing a multivitamin, ensure that it has an adequate amount of folate or folic acid (400 mcg) and the right amounts of other vitamins and minerals. Some vitamins, like vitamin A, in high doses, can cause birth defects. The recommended dietary allowance of vitamin A for pregnant people is 770 mcg.

If You Didn't Take Vitamins Prior to Pregnancy, There Is Still Time

If you are planning to become pregnant, you should begin taking a prenatal vitamin at least several months before you conceive. If you become pregnant prior to taking vitamins, however, it is still advised to begin taking them immediately as they are still beneficial throughout pregnancy.

Choosing the Right Vitamin for You

Talk to your doctor or midwife if you have any questions or concerns about prenatal vitamins. When selecting a brand, keep the following nutrients in mind:

  • Calcium: It is unlikely that your prenatal vitamin will contain all of the calcium you need. Pregnant people need 1,000 mg of calcium daily. If you are unlikely to get enough through diet (or unsure if you will), consider taking a separate calcium supplement.
  • Vitamin A: Too much vitamin A can cause birth defects. Be sure that you're using a prenatal vitamin or a multi-vitamin with under 10,000 IU.
  • Iron: Some people don't absorb all of the iron in their prenatal vitamin and may need an additional supplement. If you are concerned about low iron levels or anemia, talk to your doctor or midwife.
  • Folate: Pregnant people need at least 400 to 800 mcg of folate (commonly provided in the form of folic acid in vitamin supplements) daily to prevent birth defects known as neural tube defects, including spina bifida.

Some pregnant people find that vitamins bother their stomach. It can help to take your vitamin later in the day or with a meal, especially if you experience morning sickness. You can also try a different brand to find one that you tolerate better.

A Word From Verywell

If you have any questions or are in doubt about the supplements you are taking, bring your bottle of prenatal vitamins to your next doctor's visit to see if they are right for you. Your doctor or midwife can help to answer any questions you have about nutrition during pregnancy.

1 Source
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Coletta JM, Bell SJ, Roman AS. Omega-3 fatty acids and pregnancy. Rev Obstet Gynecol. 2010;3(4):163-71.

Additional Reading

By Robin Elise Weiss, PhD, MPH
Robin Elise Weiss, PhD, MPH is a professor, author, childbirth and postpartum educator, certified doula, and lactation counselor.