So you're pregnant (or trying to conceive)—congrats! Get up to speed on the doctor-recommended best prenatal vitamins you need for a healthy baby.
Figuring out which vitamins you should be taking to supplement your nutrition is confusing enough. Throw another factor into the mix—like a human growing inside you!—and that really raises the stakes. If you're pregnant (or planning to expand your family), here's what you need to know about why you need prenatal vitamins and the best prenatal vitamins picked by ob-gyns. (Related: Are Personalized Vitamins Actually Worth It?)
What are prenatal vitamins, and why do you need them?
All women who are pregnant or trying to becoming pregnant need a prenatal vitamin, as they're a key source of nutrients for your body and for your growing baby, says Romy Block, M.D., a board-certified specialist in endocrine medicine and co-founder of Vous Vitamin.
Just like your everyday multivitamin, prenatal vitamins are meant to fill the gap on nutrients you may be missing or need to boost while pregnant (morning sickness is real, people—so totally understandable if your vegetable intake takes a hit). Plus, these gummies and pills are packed with extra vitamins and nutrients that your body needs to grow a healthy baby.
For example, folate or folic acid is particularly important before and during pregnancy, as it helps prevent major birth defects of the fetus' brain and spine, according to the American College of Gynecology (ACOG). While you can get folic acid from foods like spinach, Brussels sprouts, and asparagus, it may be hard to reach the recommended daily amount from just noshing on these green veggies.
Another good example? Calcium. If you don't have enough calcium to support your baby's skeletal growth, the fetus can potentially draw what it needs from your own bones, according to the National Institute of Health (NIH). So, a prenatal vitamin can help complement your diet to help you get the optimal amounts of nutrients that are key for both your health and the baby's.
Your doc might also suggest taking prenatal vitamins after your baby is born. When you're pregnant, your body becomes "depleted of nutrients," so continuing to take a prenatal or swapping for a postnatal vitamin instead can help you gain back lost nutrients, explains Dr. Block (Related: Why This Dietitian Is Changing Her View On Supplements)
How soon should you start taking prenatal vitamins?
Dr. Block recommends starting a prenatal vitamin within three to six months of when you're planning to get pregnant. This is because many of the fat-soluble vitamins' that women tend to be deficient in, such as vitamin D, can be low prior to getting pregnant, and it can take several months to improve your levels, she says. (Psst...you might want to review your workout routine as well since exercise can affect your fertility.)
You should also start taking 400-700 micrograms of folic acid daily at least one month before conception through the first trimester, followed by a daily dose of 600 micrograms during the second and third trimester, says Adrian Del Boca, M.D., M.S., F.A.C.O.G., a board-certified ob-gyn at Miami Obstetrics Gynecology. Folic acid is important during pregnancy because it helps form the neural tube that grows into the baby's spinal cord, spine, brain, and skull, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
What ingredients should you look for in a good prenatal vitamin?
In general, you should look for prenatal vitamins that include four specific ingredients: B6, folic acid, iodine, and iron, says Mary Jacobson, M.D., a board-certified obstetrician and gynecologist and chief medical director at Alpha Medical.
Pregnant women should aim to meet the daily recommended amounts of 400 micrograms of folic acid, 600 IU of vitamin D, 27 mg of iron, and 1,000 mg of calcium, according to ACOG. But because they're considered a supplement, prenatal vitamins aren't regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and thus, may not contain the ideal amounts of each ingredient.
To help, there are two things to look for on the package to ensure a prenatal vitamin is legit: The Good Manufacturing Practices or GMP stamp that ensures a dietary supplement contains everything it says it does and the United States Pharmacopeia (USP) Verified mark given to supplements that have met stringent authenticity and safety requirements.
Now, why are these nutrients so important? Vitamin D and calcium work together to develop your baby's bones and teeth, and vitamin D is also essential for healthy skin and eyesight for your baby, according to the ACOG. When you're pregnant, your body needs extra iron—double the amount you need when not with child—to make more blood to supply oxygen to the baby. (Related: How to Get Enough Iron if You Don't Eat Meat)
Prenatal vitamins may contain additional nutrients like omega-3 fatty acids (specifically, DHA), which have been shown to reduce rates of pre-term birth and depression in mothers, as well as play a role in fetal neurodevelopment, says Dr. Brauer. (FYI: You can also get omega-3s from a diet rich in fish as well as flaxseeds and fortified vegetarian foods.)
That said, remember ACOG's recommendations are the minimum amounts—so women who have a history of neural tube defects, which involve incomplete development of the brain, spine, or spinal cord, according to ACOG, or who may be taking specific medications that hinder vitamin absorption (such as proton-pump inhibitors like Prilosec for heartburn), may require higher doses, says Anate Brauer, M.D., a board-certified reproductive endocrinologist and ob-gyn at Shady Grove Fertility in New York City. Pregnancies with two or more babies often require higher doses of calcium and iron, she adds.
Believe it or not, however, it is possible to go overboard with prenatal vitamins. "Just because a little bit is good for you doesn't mean a whole lot is good for you as well," says Dr. Block. In fact, too much vitamin E has been associated with abdominal pain and ruptured fetal membranes (water breaking) in pregnancy, and excess vitamin A can lead to abnormalities in the fetus, explains Dr. Block.
The Best Prenatal Vitamins, According to Ob-gyns
Always talk to your doctor about vitamin and supplement use when pregnant (or otherwise), as he or she will be able to advise on the best approach for your unique needs and medical history. And remember, all prenatal vitamins should complement—not supplement—a balanced diet that includes essential nutrients for both you and baby, says Dr. Del Boca. (Speaking of which, how much should you eat during pregnancy?)
It can be difficult to compare brands, as each woman has individual needs when it comes to prenatal vitamins and they're not regulated by the FDA, says Dr. Brauer, but here are some of the experts' top picks.
1. One A Day Prenatal 1 Multivitamin (Buy It, $20 for 60 capsules, amazon.com)
For an affordable OTC option with omega-3 fatty acids, this is a smart choice, says Dr. Jacobson. Remember: omega-3 fatty acids have been shown to help with a fetus' brain development before and after birth, according to ACOG. (Also packed with this crucial ingredient? Ritual's new prenatal vitamin subscription.)
2. 365 Everyday Value Prenatal Gummies (Buy It, $12 for 120 gummies, amazon.com)
This brand contains added digestive enzymes to help sooth upset stomach caused by pregnancy, says Heather Bartos, M.D., a board-certified ob-gyn practicing outside Dallas, Texas. If you're wanting a prenatal vitamin that can help a queasy tummy, look for one that contains at least 20,000 units of digestive enzymes such as amylase, lipase, protease, or lactase, she adds.
3. Garden of Life Vitamin Code Raw Prenatal (Buy It, $27 for 90 capsules, amazon.com)
This is a vegetarian, diet-safe option that also includes probiotics, says Dr. Jacobson. Hormonal fluctuations in pregnancy can cause changes in bowel movements and probiotics can help regulate digestion. (Related: Shop Everything That Got Me Through My First Trimester of Pregnancy)
4. Nature Made Prenatal Multi DHA Liquid Softgels (Buy It, $21 for 150 softgels, amazon.com)
This go-to vitamin brand's prenatal contains all the recommended amounts of vitamins plus DHA (which has been shown to help develop your baby's brain and cognitive functions), plus it's easy on the stomach (for most women) and easy to swallow, says Dr. Brauer.
5. TheraNatal Complete Prenatal Vitamins (Buy It, $75 for 91-day supply, amazon.com)
Dr. Brauer recommends this mail-order brand not only for its prenatal vitamins but also for its supplements made for pre- and post-conception.
6. Smarty Pants Prenatal Formula (Buy It, $16 for 30 gummies, amazon.com)
If you are dealing with nausea and/or are looking for an option that's easier to take than, say, a chunky pill, go for a small, gummy option like this product recommended by Dr. Jacobson. Note that gummy and chewable vitamins will all contain a small amount of some kind of sweetener, so if you're sensitive to sweeteners or have a family history of diabetes, try a pill format instead, she says.
7. CitraNatal B-Calm Prenatal Supplement Tablets (Prescription only, citranatal.com)
You need a doctor's prescription for this prenatal vitamin, says Dr. Brauer, but it's a great option for women prone to morning sickness. It contains vitamin B6, shown to help reduce nausea and vomiting during pregnancy. (The majority of women are fine taking an over-the-counter prenatal, however, unless they have special health requirements or a severe deficiency, notes Dr. Bartos.)