Shopping for a prenatal vitamin can be confusing. We asked ob-gyns to share their tips for finding the right one for you.
So you’re pregnant, or thinking about getting pregnant. There’s a lot to consider—where the crib will go, how you’ll survive nine months without sushi and soft cheese, how many hours of sleep you need to bank before that newborn arrives. One of the very first things you should do is invest in a good prenatal vitamin, experts say. But finding the right one can be more complicated than it seems. Here, what to look for when shopping for a prenatal.
When should you start taking a prenatal vitamin?
Even if you’re not pregnant or actively trying yet, the U.S. Public Health Service recommends taking a supplement with the B vitamin folic acid in the months leading up to pregnancy. The reason: Folic acid helps your body produce new cells, and research has linked it to a significantly lower risk of neural tube defects (NTD) such as spina bifida.
"I firmly believe that all women of reproductive age should be taking a prenatal or preconception multivitamin, as it will help prepare the body for pregnancy," says Pari Ghodsi, MD, an ob-gyn in Los Angeles. Many pregnancies are unplanned, she explains, and women who don't get enough folic acid are at greater risk for giving birth to a child with NTD, since neural tubes develop very early on in pregnancy.
As for when to stop taking a prenatal? Dr. Ghodsi says it's usually fine to switch to a regular multivitamin once you're done breastfeeding—that is, unless you plan on getting pregnant again soon. "Then I would recommend just staying on them," she says.
What should you look for in a prenatal vitamin?
According to Stephanie Zobel, MD, an ob-gyn at Winnie Palmer Hospital for Women & Babies in Orlando, the most essential feature your prenatal vitamin should have is at least 400 micrograms (4 milligrams) of folic acid and up to 30 milligrams of iron.
You may also want to consider a prenatal with omega-3 fatty acids, which are usually included as docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), a fatty acid derived from algae. "Long chain fatty acids are important for fetal brain and eye growth," says Dr. Zobel. It's possible to get enough of the nutrient by eating a weekly serving of fish (avoiding varieties that contain high levels of mercury, such as tuna), but if you're vegan, vegetarian, or simply don't eat a lot of fish in your diet, you might want to choose a prenatal with DHA, she says.
Calcium and vitamin D are often found in prenatal vitamins, too, and some contain different formulations of other vitamins and minerals, such as vitamin C, vitamin A, vitamin E, zinc, iodine, and copper. But as long as these vitamins are not in mega doses and fall within FDA guidelines, "the remainder of the makeup of the prenatal vitamin is not critical outside of folic acid and iron supplementation," says Dr. Zobel.
Depending on your situation (such as if you have a family history of NTD or are having multiples), your doctor might suggest a prenatal vitamin with a different formulation. Prescription prenatal vitamins are available too, although Dr. Zobel says she usually recommends over-the-counter brands, which are "just as good."
Pair your prenatal with a healthy pregnancy diet
No supplement can replace a healthy, balanced diet during pregnancy. Make sure you're continuing to fill your plate with plenty of folate-rich foods (think lentils, pinto and black beans, edamame, spinach, and asparagus), foods that are a good source of iron (like eggs, spinach, and Swiss chard), as well as lean meats, salmon, and fresh fruits and veggies.