The conception and pregnancy journey can be filled with twists and turns. And, while you can't predict when you might fall pregnant or whether you'll experience morning sickness, there are things you can do to support your health and in turn, the development of a growing baby.
One of these is taking prenatal vitamins. Prenatal vitamins are created to help build a healthy foundation for pregnancy and reduce the risk of certain complications, like neural tube defects.
In fact, prenatal vitamins are one of the only supplements that doctors unanimously recommend when trying to conceive and during pregnancy.
While these supplements won't make you any more likely to get pregnant, what makes prenatal vitamins important is the effect these formulations have on your pregnancy and well-being as well as the growth and development of your unborn baby.
To assist you in what can be an overwhelming nine months, we've created a Pregnancy Checklist consisting of bite-sized checklist items personalised to your pregnancy journey. Approved by fertility specialists and OBYGN approved, you'll feel prepared to tackle each day as it comes and enjoy the process, rather than get lost in it.
With your baby's health and wellbeing in mind, we've created a handy guide on everything you need to know about the nutrients included in the formulation of prenatal vitamins and the role each ingredient plays in the health of you and your baby.
Are prenatal vitamins necessary?
In short, yes! The vitamin and mineral supplements formulated specifically for conception and pregnancy have many benefits for you and your unborn baby. Prenatal vitamins are formulated with essential nutrients that help prevent neural tube defects while also supporting the development of the foetus and placenta.
When it comes to your own health, these nutrients aid in carrying oxygen around the body, support your immune system function and help to regulate your blood pressure and support energy levels.
And, if you are experiencing deficiencies in micronutrients before pregnancy, this is something that is often exacerbated once you get pregnant.
According to a 2020 study, "Micronutrients are critical for optimal pregnancy outcomes and proper metabolic activities that support tissue growth and functioning in the developing foetus.
"As such, deficiencies result in a vast array of adverse health outcomes affecting both mother and baby ."
While these deficiencies can impact you and the baby during pregnancy — and in some cases lead to low birth weight, hypertension and preterm birth — maternal malnutrition can also play a long-term role in the health and development outcomes of children, including growth, and immune functions and neurodevelopment and cognition .
Keep in mind that it's also important to continue to eat a balanced diet throughout pregnancy to make sure you're filling any nutritional gaps through food.
When should you start taking prenatal vitamins?
It's recommended that you start taking prenatal supplements three months before you actively start trying to conceive. While it might seem odd to begin taking prenatal vitamins before you're actually pregnant, these vitamins and minerals actually assist with a lot of the early work that occurs with your baby's brain development.
The neural tube, which forms the brain and spine, closes around four weeks after conception, which is generally before most people have discovered they are pregnant .
By taking prenatal supplements for months before conception, you can rest easy knowing that you were consuming the necessary vitamins and minerals for you and your baby and that you've played a role in helping to prevent complications like neural tube defects.
If you get pregnant before you begin taking prenatal vitamins, that's OK! If you can, try to start taking prenatal supplements as soon as you can as they will still be incredibly helpful in supporting your body through pregnancy and helping with the development of the foetus.
How long should you take prenatal vitamins?
Pregnancy is incredibly demanding on your body and taking a supplement designed to assist with this life stage can be helpful. And, you can take prenatal vitamins throughout your entire pregnancy and even for a little while after birth.
There's no hard and fast rule about when to stop taking your prenatal but there are supplements that are designed for the postpartum period, like Kin's Postpartum Vitamins, which contain 18 essential ingredients that help mums recover and restore when they need the support most.
Vitamins for pregnancy
Here are some of the most important vitamins and minerals that you and your baby need for a healthy pregnancy.
Iron is an incredibly important nutrient for pregnancy as it plays a huge role in the baby's development as well as your own health needs as it assists with the formation of new red blood cells.
Low iron levels in pregnancy can affect foetal growth and development and can increase the risk of premature birth or low birth weight . For you, low iron in pregnancy can cause you to feel fatigued, have trouble concentrating and in some cases, can make you more susceptible to infection .
And, given that the plasma volume of pregnant people can increase by 45 per cent compared to pre-pregnancy, which increases red blood cell production by up to 40 per cent, it's safe to say that iron is one of the essential ingredients needed during pregnancy .
Anaemia affects roughly 38 per cent of women across the world, with 25 per cent of pregnant people dealing with iron deficiency anaemia This often means that you're not getting enough iron in your diet or your gut isn't absorbing iron from the food you eat.
Symptoms of iron deficiency anaemia include:
- Fatigue, weakness and shortness of breath
- Rapid or irregular heartbeat
- Pale skin
- Lightheadedness or dizziness .
Eating a balanced diet alongside taking prenatal supplements means you'll also be receiving essential nutrients from food. Seeking out iron-rich foods and including them in your daily diet will help with your iron levels.
Common sources of iron in foods include:
- Lean meat, particularly beef, chicken and turkey
- Organ meats (such as liver and kidney)
- Beans and lentils
- Dark green leafy vegetables (such as spinach and silverbeet)
- Fortified breakfast cereals
- Wholegrain bread.
While eating iron-rich foods is a great start, it's not always enough to treat something like iron deficiency anaemia. The first step to treating iron deficiency anaemia is usually with oral supplementation .
For those who are unable to take oral iron supplements — due to absorption issues or side effects from the supplements — or if you need to restore your iron levels quickly, an intravenous iron infusion is usually recommended .
Iodine is a trace element that is needed in the body for it to function healthily.
During pregnancy, iodine plays a role in the development of infant coordination and alertness as well as the five senses of sight, hearing, smell, taste and touch As such, it is recommended that a pregnant person consumes 220 micrograms of iodine per day and 270 micrograms when breastfeeding.
While you might not have heard a lot about how iodine works to benefit your health in day-to-day life, iodine's job becomes incredibly important in pregnancy thanks to the increase in thyroid activity.
Iodine is stored in the thyroid and while pregnant, your body produces around 50 per cent more thyroid hormones, so taking stock of how much iodine you're consuming will help support this work .
Vitamin B12 is a water-soluble vitamin that is a part of the B group vitamins, which are commonly found in foods as well as dietary supplements. Vitamin B12 is important for a healthy pregnancy as it works closely with folate to support the development of the baby's neural tube and cognitive outcomes.
Much like a lack of folate, having a lack of vitamin B12 in the body during the early stages of pregnancy can increase the risk of a neural tube defect like spina bifida .
Think of vitamin B12 as the hype person for folate — vitamin B12 helps folate do its best work when it comes to foetal growth and development, while also working to help your body metabolise carbohydrates, fats and proteins to boost energy levels at a cellular level.
While vitamin B12 is a must-have ingredient in prenatal supplements, you can also find it in most animal food sources as well as fortified plant-based foods.
Sources of vitamin B12-rich foods include:
- Red meat
- Dairy products
- Fortified foods, including plant milk, plant yoghurt, tofu, nutritional yeast, cereals and fruit juice .
Choline is another nutrient that tends to fly under the radar. In day-to-day life, choline plays a role in muscle movement and pain responses and has been linked to the prevention of cardiovascular disease and liver disease . Choline and pregnancy go hand in hand as choline is important in foetal development.
Adequate choline intake while pregnant can also help prevent birth and neural tube defects and support the development of the placenta . It's recommended that pregnant people consume 450 micrograms of choline each day and one way to increase your choline levels is through food .
Some of the richest food sources of choline include:
- Egg yolks
- Beef top round
- Chicken breast
- Kidney beans
- Brussel sprouts .
When it comes to pregnancy, low zinc levels have been linked to preterm birth and in some cases, it has been found to play a role in prolonging labour, which is not at all ideal.
Maternal zinc deficiency has also been linked to postpartum haemorrhages, congenital malformations and pre-eclampsia . And, because zinc isn't stored in the body, you need to consume it regularly to meet adequate levels, which helps to support the growth of the foetal nervous system.
It's recommended that pregnant people need about 10 to 11 micrograms of zinc per day. While zinc can be found in foods like meat, fish, poultry, cereals and dairy products, you may also want to consider pregnancy vitamins that are formulated with zinc so you can be sure you're hitting your nutritional needs.
Vitamin B6 is one of the eight B group vitamins that are integral in maintaining your health and well-being. This particular vitamin is responsible for a number of important functions within the brain, immune system, metabolism and central nervous system.
In fact, this clever little vitamin has been shown to dramatically reduce nausea in pregnant people. For those who experience hyperemesis gravidarum, which is severe morning sickness that affects roughly one in 100 people, vitamin B6 has been shown to help reduce the likelihood of severe dehydration and hospitalisation .
Chances are you're aware of how magnesium can help prevent those incredibly painful leg and muscle cramps during pregnancy, but it also helps reduce the risk of preterm births well as reducing the restriction of foetal growth and increasing infant birth weight .
In short: magnesium is a superstar nutrient during pregnancy. Magnesium is integral for helping to regulate blood pressure, synthesising DNA and producing energy.
And, in tandem with calcium, it also plays a role in the development and structure of your baby's bones during the second trimester of pregnancy.
Plus, by the third trimester, your baby grows so much that your personal stores of magnesium are often depleted.
Folate is one of the most important nutrients for a healthy pregnancy and plays a vital role in the formation of the baby's spinal cord. Folate is the naturally occurring form of vitamin B9, which is found in foods.
Folic acid, on the other hand, is the synthetic form of the same B vitamin and it must be metabolised by the body before it can be used . In fact, there are actually a few forms of vitamin B9, including folic acid, folinic acid and methylfolate. With all of these choices, why is folic acid so popular?
Well, for one, folic acid is made in a laboratory and can easily be added to fortified foods like pasta, bread, cereals and rice. It can also be taken in supplement form. While folic acid is a staple in most pregnancy multivitamin formulations, it also has its drawbacks because it's not the easiest nutrient to absorb.
In fact, studies have shown that roughly one in three people struggle to convert folic acid in the body due to a common gene variant (the MTHFR-gene).
So, now that we've established the best form of folate, let's dive into why this B group vitamin is so important for your health, especially while pregnant.
As we mentioned earlier, folate is integral in the early stages of pregnancy as it helps prevent birth defects like spina bifida, which occurs when the spine and spinal cord don't form properly.
Given this usually happens during weeks four to six of pregnancy, which is when many people don't even realise they're pregnant, it's important to begin taking a supplement with folate months before trying to conceive in order to prevent neural tube defects.
The recommended amount of folate for pregnant people, or those trying to conceive, is 400 micrograms per day, although your doctor may advise you to take a higher dose if you have previously been affected by a neural tube defect before, if you have diabetes or if you have a malabsorption issue .
Alongside your trusted pregnancy multivitamin, you can also consume folate through food. Foods high in folate include:
- Dark green leafy vegetables (spinach, lettuce, asparagus, Brussels sprouts and broccoli)
- Peanuts, almonds and sunflower seeds
- Fruit and fruit juice (particularly citrus fruits like oranges, lemons and limes)
- Whole grains
- Beef liver
- Fortified foods like bread, cereals, pasta and rice.
While a folate deficiency isn't super common (and mostly occurs in people over the age of 65), pregnancy can cause deficiencies as most of your nutrient stores are going to the baby.
And, while you can receive a good whack of folate from foods, it's often not enough to meet your recommended levels for pregnancy — especially if you're experiencing morning sickness and are finding it difficult to eat some of the folate-rich food sources above.
This is why a trusted pregnancy vitamin is the way to go, so you can ensure you're getting the right amounts of key nutrients and know that your health and the health of your baby are being catered for.
During pregnancy, it's important to make sure you're getting enough vitamin D as it helps your body absorb magnesium and calcium, which in turn, work together on your baby's bone health during the second and third trimester.
Studies have also shown that vitamin D supplementation during pregnancy may improve foetal growth, while also reducing the risks associated with preeclampsia, preterm birth and gestational diabetes .
Biotin is a water-soluble B vitamin that you might associate with hair health but it does a lot more than encourage hair growth. In fact, there are over 2,000 genes in the body that rely on biotin for gene expression, which means turning a gene on or off.
When you're pregnant, the creation of new cells is happening at a rapid rate and the gene expression process becomes even more important. Research has also linked biotin deficiency during pregnancy as a potential risk factor for foetal growth restriction and preterm labour .
You might not be overly familiar with vitamin K but this fat-soluble vitamin is a superstar when it comes to helping in the building of bones and creating proteins that are necessary for blood clotting.
In some cases, a vitamin K deficiency in pregnancy can be harmful to both the mother and baby as it can lead to haemorrhaging due to reduced levels of prothrombin — a protein that relies on vitamin K for coagulation .
And, because of the poor transportation of vitamin K to the placenta, daily vitamin K supplementation is required to help keep levels healthy. This handy vitamin also works in tandem with vitamin D and helps the body absorb calcium and transport it from the intestine to other areas it's needed. A true multi-talented vitamin!
Omega-3 refers to a category of lipids (also known as fatty acids) that are important to your health but, because these lipids can't be synthesised in the body, they must be consumed through foods or supplements.
During pregnancy, omega-3s support your baby's retinal and cognitive development, while also helping to lower the risk of preterm birth .
You can consume dietary sources of omega-3 in low-mercury fish, nuts and seeds and plants oils like flaxseed oil and soybean oil — or try fish oil supplements during pregnancy — but it's often easier to opt for a combined pregnancy multivitamin that caters for a number of needs.
Vitamins to limit in pregnancy
While there are many essential minerals and vitamins that you need during pregnancy, there are also certain nutrients that you want to limit during this time.
Vitamin A is a fat-soluble nutrient that is needed in small quantities during pregnancy. This nutrient is associated with bone development, plays a role in strengthening the immune system and is essential in the development of the embryo in the early stages of pregnancy .
Vitamin A is most commonly found in food sources like:
- Dairy products (including milk, yoghurt and cheese)
- Fish oil
The animal sources of vitamin A are considered to be the most effective at boosting your levels of vitamin A within the body .Vitamin A does also pose a concern when consumed in high doses, especially in developed countries.
Excessive vitamin A intake in the early stages of pregnancy has been linked with congenital malformations involving the cardiovascular system and central nervous system of the foetus .
The good news is that consuming vitamin A from food sources isn't commonly associated with birth defects but there's no need to add a vitamin A supplement into your diet while pregnant .
And, it's best to steer clear of any vitamin A-based skincare products — including retinol and retinoids — while pregnant as these have been linked to an increased risk of birth defects.
Much like vitamin A, you don't need to consume a lot of vitamin E while pregnant. When it comes to this fat-soluble vitamin, it's best to stick to food sources rather than including a supplement in your diet.
While a vitamin E deficiency during pregnancy has been linked to complications like preeclampsia and low birth weight, research from 2015 found that supplementation of vitamin E in combination with other supplements during pregnancy didn't improve outcomes for pregnant mothers or their babies.
Researchers found that there may be harms associated with taking vitamin E supplements during pregnancy, "an increased risk of abdominal pain and term prelabour rupture of foetal membranes in women supplemented with vitamin E in combination with other supplements" .
It's best to stick to foods rich in vitamin E versus supplementation. Vitamin E-rich foods include:
- Sunflower seeds
- Peanuts (and peanut butter!)
- Green leafy vegetables (including beetroot greens, collard greens and spinach)
- Mango .
While this is a lot of information to digest about the essential nutrients needed for pregnancy, try to keep in mind that eating a healthy diet combined with a balanced and high-quality prenatal vitamin should be enough to meet all of your nutritional needs.
If you're unsure about the best prenatal vitamins for you, be sure to speak to your GP or health professional for personalised advice.