How to Choose a Prenatal Vitamin

Pregnant woman holding a white pill and a glass of water

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Whether you are pregnant or trying to conceive, you probably already recognize the importance of filling your plate with lean proteins, whole grains, healthy fats, and colorful fruits and vegetables. While eating nutritious foods is the ideal way to get the essential vitamins, minerals, and nutrients you need during pregnancy, a prenatal vitamin can help you cover any nutritional gaps in your diet.

"I liken a prenatal vitamin to a ‘safety net,'" says Dara Godfrey, RD a registered dietitian with Reproductive Medicine Associates of New York who specializes in prenatal nutrition. "Along with a well-rounded diet, it helps to ensure you are obtaining all of the important vitamins and minerals to help support your healthy body. It can also help support your baby, optimizing fetal growth and development."

But with a multitude of options stocked on your local pharmacy's shelves, choosing a prenatal vitamin can feel like a guessing game at times. Here, we cut through the confusion and provide you with information to choose the best prenatal vitamin for your situation. Read on to learn more about prenatal vitamins, why they are important, and how to select the best one for you.

What Are Prenatal Vitamins?

Prenatal vitamins are supplements specifically designed with pregnant people in mind and are formulated with the vitamins and minerals needed for a healthy pregnancy. These vitamins help ensure that you are getting what you need for you and your baby during pregnancy.

"A prenatal vitamin is simply a daily multiple vitamin modified to enhance the health of a woman trying to conceive or who is already pregnant," says Felice Gersh, MD, an OB/GYN and the medical director of Integrative Medicine in Irvine, California. "They can also be beneficial after delivery and can be used by most reproductive-aged women. In general, they contain a higher amount of iron, folate, and iodine than standard multivitamins."

More importantly, prenatal vitamins can reduce the incidence of birth defects and their use is considered essential medicine for pregnant people, Dr. Gersh adds. "The purpose is to fill any gaps in nutrients due to dietary issues or the use of pharmaceuticals such as oral contraceptives, which deplete women of numerous vital nutrients," she continues.

Pregnancy is physically very stressful for a pregnant person, and your nutritional status can affect both your health and that of your developing baby. Because many diets do not include adequate quantities of nutrients that are vital for the pregnant person and the fetus, supplementation can improve the chances of a great outcome for both, Dr. Gersh says.

What to Look for in Prenatal Vitamins

Research indicates that nearly 2 billion people are deficient in key vitamins and minerals. These deficiencies worsen during pregnancy due to increased energy and nutritional demands. In fact, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) indicates that one in six women in the U.S. is iron deficient during pregnancy.

When these types of deficiencies occur, they can lead to adverse effects for the pregnant person and their baby. But the good news is that these issues can be mitigated by using supplements like prenatal vitamins. The key is finding a vitamin that contains adequate amounts of the essential vitamins and minerals that pregnant people need.

"Each prenatal vitamin has a unique amount of vitamins and minerals," says Godfrey. "But, generally, they differ from a regular multivitamin in that they contain extra folic acid and iron to support a woman during pregnancy. I suggest looking for a prenatal that also has vitamin D3, omega-3’s (DHA/EPA), and added choline."

It is important to read the labels and talk to your healthcare provider to determine how much you need of each vitamin and mineral. And keep in mind that every prenatal vitamin will have different amounts of ingredients, with some being more comprehensive than others.

"For instance, the differences between prenatal vitamins include the type of folate and B12," says Dr. Gersh. "Some contain folic acid and cyancolbatamine rather that the preferred forms of tetramethyl folate and methylcobalamine. Another difference can be the amount of iodine, the form of iron, and the amounts of minerals. Some may contain choline while others may not, and some may also contain other items, such as ginger."

Recommendations for Prenatal Vitamins
Nutrient Benefit 
Iron  Helps prevent anemia, which can lead to preterm birth 
Folate (B9)  Helps prevent serious birth defects 
Vitamin A  Helps support healthy eyesight 
Iodine  Supports brain and cognitive development 
Zinc  Promotes immunity, resistance to infection, proper growth and development of the nervous system
Vitamin D  Promotes bone health as well as muscle and nerve functions
Choline Helps the baby's brain and spinal cord develop properly
Omega-3s Promotes the development of the baby's brain and retina
Calcium Prevents reduction of pregnant person's bone density
When looking at prenatal vitamins, you should ensure the one you select has these important vitamins and minerals, plus anything else your healthcare provider recommends.

When to Start Taking Prenatal Vitamins

According to Dr. Gersh, prenatal vitamins can be taken throughout the reproductive years. But, at a minimum, they should be taken once the decision to have a baby is made or after a pregnancy is recognized.

"I suggest all women of childbearing age start taking prenatal vitamins as it provides a good foundation in your body to help prepare for a future pregnancy," says Godfrey. "A bonus is that it can also help support hair and nail growth."

They also should be continued for at least a year after delivery, she adds. Being pregnant is demanding on your body and can deplete you of many vital nutrients. "It takes approximately a year for the nutrients in your body to be restored to pre-pregnancy levels," Godfrey says. "[Continuing to take prenatal vitamins] is especially important for people who are breastfeeding, as these supplements can help support milk supply and potentially support energy and mood."

Tips for Taking Prenatal Vitamins

If you do not normally take supplements, or you do not regularly take medications, it can be hard to remember to take your prenatal vitamins. For this reason, Godfrey recommends that you leave the bottle near something that's already integrated into your routine, like next to the coffee machine, with your makeup, or by your keys.

"[Because] I hear about many women forgetting to take their prenatal vitamins consistently, I suggest pairing your vitamin intake with something you do daily, like brushing your teeth," she says. "Even putting a reminder in your phone can be helpful."

Godfrey also recommends taking your prenatal vitamin after a meal because it helps you absorb your fat-soluble vitamins like D, A, K, and E. Additionally, it also can be easier on your stomach, especially if you struggle with nausea after taking them.

Prenatal vitamins with omega 3’s (DHA/EPA) also can lead to "fish burps," Godfrey says. If you find that this happens frequently to you, you may want to take your prenatal vitamins before bed to help minimize the chances that you are awake for one of those potential burps.

Regardless of when or how you plan to take your prenatal vitamins, the most important thing is that you are taking them.

How to Deal With Side Effects

Sometimes prenatal vitamins can induce some mild but unpleasant side effects, like nausea and constipation. That said, this possibility should not prevent you from taking prenatals, as these symptoms can be offset or prevented with some easy changes in your routine. For instance, if you are particularly nauseous in the morning, you may want to try taking your vitamin at night.

"Prenatal vitamins should have minimal to no side effects if taken after consuming food," Godfrey says. "Some people may find prenatal vitamins somewhat constipating as they contain more iron. Ensuring adequate fiber and water intake can help negate those potential side effects."

If, after increasing your fiber and water intake, you are still struggling with constipation, consider talking with your healthcare provider. They may make additional recommendations like stool softeners or changing your vitamin intake in some way.

Some people find that taking individual supplements is easier than taking one multivitamin that contains everything. Together, you and your provider can determine what is right for you.

A Word From Verywell

Taking a prenatal vitamin can help you ensure you do not have any gaps in your nutritional needs throughout your pregnancy and even after delivery. That said, it is still important to make healthy food choices throughout your pregnancy. Doing so will help you feel as good as possible and support your baby’s future health.

If you have questions about how best to meet your nutritional needs during and after pregnancy, or if you are unsure which prenatal vitamin is best for you, talk to your healthcare provider or a registered dietitian. They can help you put together a plan that ensures you are getting the nutrients you need to support you and your baby.

4 Sources
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.
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  2. Oh C, Keats EC, Bhutta ZA. Vitamin and mineral supplementation during pregnancy on maternal, birth, child health and development outcomes in low- and middle-income countries: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Nutrients. 2020 Feb 14;12(2):491. doi:10.3390/nu12020491

  3. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Vitamin and mineral nutrition for healthy growth and development.

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By Sherri Gordon
Sherri Gordon is a published author and a bullying prevention expert.