The NHS says that eating a healthy and varied diet while you’re pregnant should provide you with most of the vitamins and minerals that you need, give or take a few.1
But, of course, that’s during pregnancy. So, do women have to think about their vitamin and mineral intake before they get pregnant or is it something they only need to factor in once they discover they are carrying?
If you’re trying to conceive for the first time, then the answers to these questions may not be so obvious than if you’ve already gone through the pregnancy journey. Yes you can read books and log online to read articles like these, but given the amount of pre-pregnancy, pregnancy, post-pregnancy information there is out there, it can be a bit of a minefield.
So, we’re dedicating this entire article to telling you all there is to know – the nuggets of useful information we think you ought to know – about pre-natal vitamins, and answering your burning questions, like the one immediately below…
Why take pre-natal vitamins?
There are a few reasons why women choose to take pre-natal vitamins, the main one being the fact they can potentially help with foetal development.
Pre-natal supplements can also help lower the risk of mum and baby developing certain conditions along the way, such as sickness, birth defects and pre-term labour. The benefits provided by pre-natal vitamins are optimised when taken before conception takes place.2
Is it a good idea to take pre-natal vitamins when not pregnant?
According to the same NHS guidance we spoke about at the very start of this article, it’s advisable to take 400 micrograms of folic acid every day before getting pregnant. Then, when you are pregnant, you should continue to take it 12 weeks into your pregnancy.
Folic acid is a recommended pre-natal vitamin because it can help prevent neural tube birth defects from taking place, such as spina bifida. And if you happen to get pregnant and haven’t been taking folic acid beforehand, the NHS recommends that you should take it as soon as you realise that you are pregnant.3
Folate can also be found in certain food, for instance, breakfast cereals and margarine, but the levels that are present in food aren’t enough. That’s why it’s recommended women still continue to eat folate-rich foods, as well as take a folic acid supplement to fully bolster their folic acid levels.
When should you start taking a pre-natal vitamin?
The short answer to this question is as soon as you decide you’d like to try for a baby. Just as much as you may have been planning to get pregnant, some planning and preparation should also be factored in, in relation to pre-natal vitamins and your pre-pregnancy vitamin and mineral levels.
It may take weeks or months for you to conceive, but during this time it’s important that you are taking care of your body and giving it the best possible pregnancy start by taking pre-natal vitamins, which are an important element of preconception care.
Why take them beforehand? Well, that’s because when you are pregnant, it can be draining on our body, as you are providing your body with all of the vitamins, nutrients and minerals to enable your baby to develop and grow. Because of this, it’s possible for you to develop deficiencies during pregnancy, but if you stock up on your levels beforehand, then hopefully you’re less likely to experience this.4
How long should you take them for? You should continue to take them during your pregnancy and afterwards, for as long as you decide to breastfeed for.5
The best pre-natal vitamins
- Folic acid
This is one of the main pre-natal vitamins. We’ve already touched on it a little bit above, but the reason why it’s so essential is because it creates your baby’s neural tube, which goes on to form the brain and spinal column. Babies that are born without a fully-formed neural tube may have spina bifida or anencephaly.
Taking 400mcg of folic a day is enough while you’re trying to conceive, but when you get pregnant, the dosage should be upped to 600mcg a day.6 Ideally, you want to be taking folic acid at least three months before becoming pregnant.7 (For more insight read, ‘Folic acid for pregnancy.’)
It’s not uncommon for pregnant women to feel tired, especially towards the later stages of their pregnancy and as their baby gets bigger. Iron is an important pre-natal and pregnancy supplement for both baby and mum. (FYI – Required iron levels can increase from 18mg to 22mg during pregnancy).8
Not only does iron provide the foetus with blood and oxygen, it helps build the placenta and provides women with the extra blood volume that’s required during pregnancy. During pregnancy, most women are susceptible to developing anaemia, which means the number of healthy red blood cells are low9, so taking an iron supplement helps ensure they have the right level of blood cells present within their blood.10
At the same time, it’s also possible to increase your iron levels by eating iron-rich foods. Examples include leafy green vegetables, nuts and lean meat. Iron can also be found in most breakfast cereals too.11
Is essential for making sure baby’s teeth and bones develop as they should and that they are strong and healthy. However, if women are low on calcium, their baby will take the calcium it needs straight from mum’s reserves during pregnancy and breastfeeding. As a result, this can potentially lead to temporary bone loss.12
Calcium’s also present in lots of food, such as milk, cheese and yoghurt, tofu, sardines and pilchards and rocket, watercress and curly kale. However, these food sources alone may not be able to provide the calcium levels that are needed during pregnancy.13
- Vitamin D
Known as the sunshine vitamin, Vitamin D is something we all need; men, women, children, before pregnancy, during pregnancy and after pregnancy. All adults, this includes pregnant and breastfeeding women, need 10 mcg of Vitamin D a day.
Vitamin D’s job is to regulate our calcium and phosphate levels, which then helps keep our bones, teeth and muscles healthy.
Our bodies do make our own levels of Vitamin D when we’re exposed to direct sunlight, but because it’s not sunny all-year round, it is possible for those levels to take a dip, especially during the winter months. Vitamin D can be obtained from food, such as oily fish, red meat and eggs and breakfast cereals. But it can be difficult for us to get all of the Vitamin D we need from food alone.14
Vitamin D deficiencies in pregnancy can potentially lead to pre-eclampsia, pre-term birth, gestational diabetes mellitus, and other tissue-related conditions.15 (For more insight read, ‘The best sources of Vitamin D for pregnancy.’)
Are there any side effects to taking pre-natal vitamins?
Sometimes, it’s possible for the iron in prenatal vitamins to cause constipation, which can be prevented by drinking plenty of fluids, eating more fibre and staying as active as possible.16
Before taking any pre-natal or pregnancy vitamins, it’s important that you seek the guidance of a medical professional first.
Are there any other vitamins to think about?
If you decide to take an all-round pre-natal vitamin, then try to make sure that it includes the vitamins listed above, plus these:
- Vitamin A and E
- Vitamin B-12
Choline is also something most pregnant women tend to be lacking in. One way to help maintain choline levels is to eat plenty of choline-rich foods, such as egg yolks or take a supplement. It contributes to good overall health and plays a key role in foetal brain development and placental function.
Some supplements also contain something called Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), which is one of the most important omega-3 fatty acids. It’s crucial for the development of brain tissue growth and function throughout pregnancy, particularly during the third trimester.17
When’s the best time to take pre-natal vitamins?
It very much depends on the small print that’s on the label of the vitamins you’re taking, as some vitamins are best taken first thing, last thing, with a snack or with a full on meal. Ideally, you want to take your vitamins at the time of day that your body will most benefit (again, you’ll find this guidance on the label).
Taking pre-natal vitamins before lunch will help the body to absorb all of their goodness. While iron is best absorbed on an empty stomach, and won’t absorb very well after you’ve eaten any form of dairy food. What’s more, iron absorption is greater if you take it with a drink that contains Vitamin C.
Some pre-natal vitamins are best taken on an empty stomach or with a glass of water to help prevent symptoms, such as sickness and constipation. And if you do find that taking your vitamins first thing in the morning on an empty stomach makes you fill ill, then why not take them before you go to bed and see if that makes any difference?
The main thing with taking pre-natal vitamins is that you establish a routine that works best for you and you stick to the routine every single day.18
For more practical advice on what to do doing pre-pregnancy read, ‘4 ways to increase your chances of pregnancy.’
Last updated: 10 November 2020