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Diseases & Conditions

Prenatal Vitamins

(Also Called 'Prenatal Vitamins - Nutrition')

What are they?

Prenatal vitamins are specially formulated multivitamins that mothers-to-be are advised to take for their own health as well as for the health of their babies. These vitamins make up for any nutritional deficiencies in your diet during your pregnancy. While the supplements contain numerous vitamins and minerals, folic acid, iron, and calcium content are especially important. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG), recommends pregnant and lactating women should aim for an average daily intake of at least 200 mg docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) a day in addition to their prenatal vitamins. Prenatal vitamins, as well as DHA, can be purchased over the counter or with a prescription.

Why do pregnant women need high levels of folic acid, iron, and calcium?

Taking folic acid can reduce your risk of having a baby with a serious birth defect of the brain and spinal cord, called the "neural tube." A baby with spina bifida, the most common neural tube defect, is born with a spine that is not completely developed. The exposed nerves are damaged, leaving the child with varying degrees of paralysis, incontinence, and sometimes mental retardation. Some women are at an increased risk for having a baby with an open neural tube defect. These women include, but are not limited to, those with a family history of spina bifida and those taking anti-epileptic medicines. ACOG recommends additional folic acid for women at an increased risk for having a baby with a neural tube defect. Your doctor can discuss this with you and, in some instances, refer you for genetic counseling.

Neural tube defects develop in the first 28 days after conception. Because about half of all pregnancies are unplanned, the U.S. Public Health Service recommends that all women of childbearing age get 400 micrograms of folic acid each day. There are natural sources of folic acid: green leafy vegetables, nuts, beans, and citrus fruits. It's also found in many fortified breakfast cereals and some vitamin supplements.

Taking calcium during pregnancy can prevent a new mother from losing her own bone density as the fetus uses the mineral for bone growth. Taking iron helps both the mother and baby's blood carry oxygen.

While a daily vitamin supplement is no substitute for a healthy diet, most pregnant and lactating women need supplements to make sure they get adequate levels of these minerals.