What Are the Benefits of Prenatal Vitamins?

By C. Giles
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Whether you are trying to conceive or already pregnant, prenatal vitamins are an easy way to fill any nutritional gaps in your diet. Certain vitamins and minerals, such as folic acid and iron, are vital for the healthy development of your baby. Taking prenatal vitamins before conception and in the first few weeks of pregnancy may even ward off morning sickness, reveals Heidi Murkoff, author of the bestselling pregnancy book "What to Expect When You're Expecting." MayoClinic.com recommends taking prenatal vitamins through your entire pregnancy and continuing during breastfeeding if recommended by your doctor.

Are Prenatal Vitamins Necessary?

It's difficult to get all the nutrients you and your baby need. Even pregnant women who eat a very healthy diet may be lacking in certain minerals or vitamins. It's particularly important to take a prenatal vitamin if you are vegetarian or vegan, lactose-intolerant, a smoker, are expecting twins or other multiples, or suffer from certain blood disorders or chronic diseases.

What's in Them?

Prenatal vitamins always contain folic acid and iron because most pregnant women don't get enough of these from their diet alone, says BabyCenter.com. Folic acid is a B vitamin that can reduce your baby's risk of neural tube defects like spin bifida by up to 70 percent. It may also reduce the risk of other defects such as cleft lip, cleft palate and heart defects. A supplement is recommended even if your diet contains plenty of natural folic acid, because the synthetic version is easier for the body to absorb. A lack of iron can lead to iron-deficiency anemia, which may lead to preterm delivery, low birth weight and infant mortality.

Are They Safe?

A prenatal vitamin is safe to take during pregnancy because it won't contain more than the recommended daily amount of any particular vitamin or mineral. For example, vitamin A may be harmful to your baby if taken in high doses. Prenatal vitamins normally contain this vitamin in the form of beta-carotene, a nutrient found in fruits and vegetables that is converted to vitamin A by the body. This is considered safe, even in high doses.

What's Not in Them?

Standard prenatal vitamins don't contain any essential fatty acid, says MayoClinic.com. For example, the omega-3 fatty acids DHA and EPA, which help your baby's brain, nerve and eye tissue develop. A good source of DHA and EPA is fish, but fish high in mercury should be limited during pregnancy. Prenatal vitamins often contain calcium, but it may not be enough. Calcium is crucial for your baby's development of strong bones and teeth, as well as healthy nerves and muscles.

How to Choose the Best One

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration doesn't regulate what goes into vitamin and mineral supplements, so there are no standards set for what they should include. MayoClinic.com recommends choosing a supplement that contains 400 to 800 micrograms of folic acid, 250 milligrams of calcium, 30 milligrams of iron, 50 milligrams of vitamin C, 15 milligrams of zinc, 2 milligrams of copper, 2 milligrams of vitamin B-6 and 400 international units of Vitamin D. Discuss your options with your health care provider, taking into account your diet, any existing health problems and any complications with your pregnancy. Always check with your doctor or midwife before taking a prenatal supplement in addition to any other vitamin or mineral supplement.

About the Author

C. Giles is a writer with an MA (Hons) in English literature and a post-graduate diploma in law. Her work has been published in several publications, both online and offline, including "The Herald," "The Big Issue" and "Daily Record."