If you are expecting, your healthcare provider has likely already stressed how important it is to take prenatal vitamins throughout your pregnancy. But reading labels at your local pharmacy is kind of like trying to understand a foreign language: You’ve heard of niacin, but what exactly is biotin? And how much do you really need?
Luckily, choosing the right prenatal for you doesn’t have to be so confusing. We’re here to translate the terminology and make it easy to narrow down the most important components to look for when navigating the supplement aisle.
Why do I need prenatal vitamins?
Now that you’re eating for two, you’ve probably upped your intake of healthy fruits, vegetables and protein. But even if you consume a balanced diet most of the time, you still have an increased need for certain nutrients during pregnancy, notes Natalia Stasenko, MS, RD, CDN, founder of Tribeca Nutrition in New York City. That’s where prenatal vitamins can help. “Although food should be a primary source of nutrition, prenatal supplements can be used to fill in gaps in your diet and increase your chances for having the healthiest baby possible,” she says. Typically, the main difference between a prenatal vitamin and the chewable variety you took as a kid is a higher amount of folic acid and iron. These are two essential nutrients women need both before and throughout pregnancy.
Without enough iron, for example, women put themselves at risk for delivering preterm and at a low birth weight. Getting plenty of folic acid both before and early on in the first tri-mester is crucial for the development of DNA and helps to prevent birth defects, including spina bifida.
Which kind is right for me?
In addition to folic acid and iron, prenatal vitamins should contain calcium, which is important for bone and red blood cell development, as well as adequate amounts of vitamins A, the B-complex, C, D and zinc—all of which are essential for baby’s growth.
Beyond containing the basic nutrients listed above, a woman’s insurance coverage, personal preference and budget often come into play when choosing one brand over another, notes Alyssa Dweck, MD, an OB/GYN and healthy mama brand medical advisory board member.
Although over-the-counter prenatals are not a major expense, specialty and prescription brands can be pricey. Check with your insurance provider to see which brands are covered as part of your plan.
Other considerations when choosing one kind over another might include the percentage of the daily value for all of the nutrients listed (it shouldn’t exceed 100 percent), whether the bottle contains a U.S. Pharmacopeia (USP) label (which ensures the product has been tested for safety and quality), whether the vitamins contain herbs and other botanicals (which increase costs but have not necessarily been tested for safety or efficacy during pregnancy) and whether the iron is labeled as slow-releasing (which helps with digestion but might not be absorbed as efficiently).
Stasenko also notes that it’s wise to check labels for the provided daily value of calcium, as most brands only contain around 15 percent. It’s important for women who don’t get a lot of calcium in their diet to take prenatal vitamins with 100 percent of the daily value or take an additional calcium supplement. As always, she stresses, be sure to talk to your doctor before considering any add-ons.