Dr. Natalie Dogal, OB/GYN at Virginia Physicians for Women, discusses FAQ’s like why prenatal vitamins are important, when to take them, how they affect fertility, and whether they can be beneficial if you’re not pregnant or trying.
Most people know it’s important to take a prenatal vitamin to support your pregnancy with the nutrients your body needs to grow a healthy baby. But when should you start taking one? Do they make you more fertile? Can they really help strengthen your hair and nails if you’re not pregnant? There’s a lot to know about prenatal vitamins before you ever start your pregnancy journey – and even if you’re not planning to. Let’s take a look.
How do prenatal vitamins support pregnancy?
The requirements for micronutrients increase during pregnancy. While most nutrients can be obtained by eating a well-balanced, healthy diet, in the US many nutrients are under-consumed on a daily basis. Taking a prenatal vitamin every day helps to supplement where your diet could fall short.
Supplementation of these vitamins has been shown to decrease the risk of miscarriage and has reduced rates of low birth weight. It also helps with the development of some of the baby’s organ systems that begins early in pregnancy.
When should you start taking a prenatal vitamin?
Ideally, you should start taking a daily prenatal vitamin at least one month prior to attempting to conceive. Major birth defects of the baby’s brain or spine occur very early in pregnancy, even 3-4 weeks after conception, which is before most people even know they are pregnant. Prenatal vitamins can help prevent these birth defects if you take them when you are trying to conceive or when you’re not preventing conception.
If you didn’t know it was important to take a prenatal vitamin before conceiving, start taking one immediately after you learn you are pregnant.
Can you take a prenatal vitamin if you’re NOT pregnant?
Yes! In fact, you should be taking a prenatal vitamin if:
- You are actively attempting to conceive, OR
- You are not using any contraception and you are a person with a uterus open to pregnancy.
About half of pregnancies in the US are unplanned. Since birth defects occur so early in pregnancy, it’s a good idea to be taking a prenatal vitamin if you’re in a position to become pregnant – even if you’re not trying.
Do prenatal vitamins make you more fertile?
There is no data suggesting a prenatal vitamin will increase your fertility. The goal of taking a prenatal vitamin when trying to conceive is to aid in a healthy diet to make sure you have enough of the vitamins you need when you conceive and to allow you to have the healthiest pregnancy possible.
How long should you take a prenatal vitamin after giving birth?
You should continue taking your daily prenatal vitamin throughout your pregnancy and postpartum period, especially if you are breastfeeding. The postpartum period begins at childbirth and continues for a few months as your body returns to its pre-pregnancy state.
While you are breastfeeding, your milk might be the only source of your baby’s nutrition, so supplementing with prenatal vitamins as long as you are breastfeeding can ensure the baby gets the nutrients they need as they continue to develop.
What should you look for in a prenatal vitamin?
Certain vitamins are crucial for supporting specific areas of a baby’s development and preventing birth defects. Your body especially needs extra folic acid for preventing brain and spine birth defects and iron to help make blood and deliver oxygen to the fetus. Other vitamins are important to supplement as well.
The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) recommends the following vitamins in the specified recommended daily amounts via diet and/or supplementation leading up to, during and after pregnancy:
Folic acid (600 mcg): helps to build a normal brain and spine, as well as general growth of the baby and your placenta.
Iron (27mg): helps red blood cells deliver oxygen to your baby.
Calcium (1000mg):: helps build strong bones and teeth.
Vitamin D (600IU): helps with development of bone, teeth, eyes, and skin.
Choline (450mg): helps with brain and spinal cord development.
Omega-3 fatty acids (300mg DHA): supports brain development.
B vitamins (B6 1.9mg and B12 2.6mcg): both help with making red blood cells.
Vitamin C (85mg): helps with developing healthy gums, teeth, and bones.
Iodine ( 220mcg): helps with brain development.
Vitamin A (770mcg): helps with skin, bone, and eye development.
You’ll want to look for a prenatal vitamin that contains enough of these vitamins in the ingredients to supplement what you’re consuming in your regular diet so that you can reach the recommended daily amounts.
As always, ask your OB/GYN for specifics, but sometimes recommendations will vary based on a patient’s circumstances. For example, the recommendation for folic acid is 600mcg, which can be hard to get just from food; so we generally recommend taking a prenatal vitamin with at least 400mcg. However, if you have had a prior child or family history of neural tube defect, it is recommended to supplement with a larger dose (4mg) of folic acid.
How do you find a good prenatal vitamin? What brands are best?
Most importantly, you need to find a prenatal vitamin that you can take daily. If you have issues with nausea or taking pills, you may want to consider a smaller pill or a gummy. Of note, gummies do not contain iron, so you will need to make sure you are getting enough iron in your diet or take a separate iron supplement.
Some common brands that you can get at your local pharmacy/supermarket are Nature Made, Olly, Smartypants, and One-a-day. Most generic prenatal vitamins are equivalent and just as good as brand names.
There are some other prenatal vitamins on the market that you can only purchase online through subscriptions, such as: Modern Fertility, Ritual, and Perelel. These tend to be more expensive but tend to have less additives with artificial dyes and colorants. They also include folate in the biologically active form of methylfolate, which makes them easier for your body to absorb.
Look at what nutrients are included in your prenatal vitamin and compare them to the recommendations, and look at your diet to determine which prenatal vitamin may be best for you. You can always ask your provider to make sure the one you choose includes the right amounts of nutrients to meet your needs.
Is it ever helpful to take more than the recommended dosage of prenatal vitamins?
Please do not take more than the recommended dosage of prenatal vitamins. Depending on the brand, the recommended dosage may be one or more capsules daily. Please don’t take any additional supplementation of those vitamins, either, unless you have been specifically told to by your OB/GYN. Taking more than the recommended dosage of some vitamins could actually be harmful to your baby.
What if you forget to take your prenatal vitamin?
If you forget to take your prenatal vitamin, it’s okay – just take it as prescribed the next day. You should not double up or take more than the recommended dosage the next day because it may be too high of a dosage of certain components of the vitamin.
Can you substitute a prenatal vitamin for a daily multivitamin in order to strengthen hair and nails, even if you’re not pregnant or trying?
Yes, you can take a prenatal vitamin as a substitute for your daily multivitamin even if you aren’t trying to get pregnant. Prenatal vitamins contain biotin, which has been shown to help with hair and nail growth as well as other components that may contribute to better skin health.
The key is making sure you are only taking the advised dose of each supplement, so if you are taking a prenatal vitamin, you would NOT want to be taking an additional multivitamin. As always, consult with a physician if you are trying to take additional doses of any supplement that you are already taking in a combination vitamin.
Ask Your Provider if You Have Questions
Whether you’re pregnant or not, feel free to ask your women’s health provider if you have any questions about prenatal vitamins or how to supplement your diet to get the nutrients you need. A healthy diet is the best place to start, and we’re here to help you navigate where more nutrients are needed!
Dr. Natalie Dogal is an OB/GYN at Virginia Physicians for Women. She sees patients at VPFW’s Henrico Doctors’ and St. Mary’s offices and delivers babies at Henrico Doctors’ Hospital and St. Mary’s Hospital.