If you’re pregnant (or #TTC), you’re obviously eating all the kale, salmon, and whole grains you can…right?
LOL, right. Many moms-to-be eat whatever they can for the first few months (what up, saltine crackers and Swedish fish?) thanks to a little thing called morning sickness and a hyper-sensitive nose.
And that, kids, is exactly why prenatal vitamins were invented.
What exactly are prenatal vitamins?
Prenatal vitamins are there to fill in any nutritional gaps and make sure there is an abundance of all the vital nutrients your baby needs to grow—especially magnesium, zinc, calcium, vitamins B and C, and folate, says G. Thomas Ruiz, MD, ob-gyn at MemorialCare Orange Coast Medical Center in Fountain Valley, California.
Unfortunately, your diet alone usually isn’t enough to provide you with all the vitamins that play a major role in your baby’s growth and development, says Tiffany Woodus, MD, an ob-gyn at Woodus Obstetrics & Gynecology in Texas. “Most women simply do not consume enough of the key nutrients that have been shown to give babies the best possible start in life.”
What are the benefits of taking prenatal vitamins?
Aside from aiding in your baby’s growth, studies have shown that particular supplements can lower the risk of certain conditions for both you and your baby. “Prenatal vitamins can help decrease your risk of nausea, birth defects, and preterm birth. These benefits are optimized when prenatal vitamins are started prior to conception,” says Dr. Woodus.
Supplemental folate (or folic acid), in particular, is very important. It’s been shown to reduce neural tube defects in babies, which are conditions involving the baby’s brain and spine. Folic acid can also reduce the risk of autism spectrum disorders, research shows. When prenatal vitamins are taken before conception or during early pregnancy, the risk of having a child with autism decreases even in genetically susceptible mothers and children, a study published in the Journal of Epidemiology found. Whoa.
Are there any side effects of taking prenatal vitamins I should know about?
Most of these vitamins are water soluble, meaning you’ll just pee out any excess, Dr. Ruiz says. (So, you don’t need to worry about OD’ing.) There is one exception to this rule, however: iron, which can be toxic in large doses.
Pregnant women need 30 to 60 milligrams of iron each day, according to the guidelines from the World Health Organization (WHO). Most prenatal vitamins come fortified with extra iron, so as long as you’re sticking to what’s in your daily prenatal (and not supplementing with even more iron), you’ll be fine, Dr. Ruiz says. (Caveat: If you’re anemic, you might need more, so Dr. Ruiz recommends discussing your individual needs with your doctor.)
Okay, so when do I need to start taking prenatal vitamins—and for how long?
Ideally you should start taking them as soon as you start trying to conceive, Dr. Ruiz says. (FYI: It’s a myth that they will increase your fertility, though.) Your baby will need those extra nutrients from the moment of conception, Dr. Ruiz explains.
Continue to take the vitamins throughout your pregnancy and afterward, for as long as you’re breastfeeding, he advises.
What do I really need in a prenatal vitamin?
Sifting through drugstore shelves or Amazon suggestions is super intimidating. And don’t worry, it’s not just you—all of those options don’t just start to sound alike, they really are very similar, says Wendy Goodall McDonald, MD, a Chicago-based ob-gyn.
These are (roughly) the recommended daily amounts of essential nutrients you should be getting when you’re pregnant, and what a basic prenatal should have:
- Folic acid: 400 milligrams (to support the development of baby’s brain and spine)
- Vitamin D: 600 international units (to support proper growth and reduce risk of preterm delivery)
- Calcium: 1,000 milligrams (to aid in the development of baby’s bones and teeth)
- Iron: 27 milligrams (to support the increase in blood volume needed to support both mom and baby)
- Omega-3 fatty acids: 200 milligrams (to aid in baby’s brain and eye development)
Other vitamins you should look for in your prenatals:
- Vitamin A (for the baby’s development of healthy skin, eyes and bones)
- Vitamin C (to aid in the growth of healthy gums, teeth, and bones)
- Vitamin B6 (to help form red blood cells to aid mom and baby in actually absorbing the nutrients they need)
- Vitamin B12 (to help support red blood cell production and the nervous system)
One thing to note: Getting enough vitamin D is especially important for BIPOC women, as they’re more prone to having a deficiency, says Lucky Sekhon, MD, an ob-gyn, infertility specialist, and reproductive endocrinologist at Reproductive Medicine Associates of New York. Vitamin D is important for bone health and a healthy pregnancy, and not getting enough has been linked to conditions like preeclampsia and preterm delivery. “Vitamin D is derived from sun exposure and skin absorption, which is limited in melanin-pigmented skin,” says Dr. Sekhon. “The average prenatal vitamin contains 400 IU of vitamin D. A woman whose levels are known to be deficient will require more than this daily amount to replenish it.” If you do need more vitamin D, there are ways to get it from your diet (more on that below).
As for the other ingredients in many vitamins? There’s no hard and fast rule as to how much, say, biotin you should take on the reg, as “biotin and many of the other minerals quantities aren’t backed by scientific evidence when it comes to the absolute required quantities in a prenatal,” Dr. McDonald explains.
What foods contain the nutrients found in prenatal vitamins?
While it’s very difficult to get all the necessary nutrients you and your baby need through diet (that’s why you need a vitamin!), it’s still helpful to know what foods you can eat more of to support your baby’s growth. Here’s what foods you can find the necessary nutrients in:
- Folic acid: fortified cereals, grains, green leafy vegetables
- Iron: red meat, dried beans, fortified cereals
- Vitamin D: egg yolk, salmon, cod liver oil
- Calcium: milk, cheese, yogurt
- Omega-3 fatty acids: tilapia, salmon, shrimp
So the question still remains: which prenatal vitamin is the right prenatal vitamin?
While it’s different for everyone (for example, some people might have tummy troubles with one versus another), here are the top doctor-approved prenatal vitamins on the market, including the best-selling ones on Amazon to add to your cart, STAT. And to top it all off? Insight from the pros as to why you should add ’em to your cart.
1. One A Day Women’s Prenatal 1 Multivitamin
This is the most popular brand of prenatal vitamins on the market, and it’s a solid choice, says Hillary Wright, MEd, RD, director of nutrition counseling at Boston IVF and an expert in prenatal nutrition.
It’s not necessarily fancy, but it gets the job done for a reasonable price and, best of all, it’s been verified by an independent lab so it actually contains what it says it contains, she adds. (Which isn’t always the case with supplements as they’re not monitored by the FDA.)
Gallery: 15 Supplements Every Woman Should Take (ETNT Health)
2. Nature Made Prenatal + DHA 200 mg Multivitamin
The best thing about this prenatal vitamin: a large dose of DHA, a fatty acid crucial to fetal brain development, Wright says.
“A lot of prenatals advertise they have this but they have a minuscule amount—you want a minimum of 200 mg of DHA per serving,” she says. You can also get DHA by taking a separate fish oil supplement.
3. Mama Bird Prenatal Multivitamin
These vitamins contain “methylated folate”—a pretty buzzy word in the prenatal vitamin world. Folate is one of the most important vitamins in prenatal pills, but some women have a genetic condition that makes it hard for their bodies to convert the folic acid in most prenatals to the active form the body can use, Wright explains.
But there’s a catch: You won’t know if you have the condition unless you have genetic testing done. So if you want to be super-safe and cover all your bases, then a methylated version of folate might be worth the money. Still, she emphasizes that for the majority of women, the regular (and more affordable) variety is just fine.
4. TheraNatal Complete Prenatal Vitamin & Mineral Supplement
This prenatal is Wright’s personal favorite and the one she recommends to her clients. It contains iodine and choline—two minerals vital to hormone regulation, fetal growth, and brain development—that are often missing from other prenatal vitamins.
Ideally, you want 150 micrograms of iodine and 450 milligrams of choline (which also is, btw, a key nutrient in eggs) every day, according to Wright, who also notes that this product in particular is also independently tested and has a high standard of quality.
There is one major downside: They don’t come cheap. These are by far the most expensive OTC option on the list, although you may be able to get them cheaper through your doctor or buying them directly from their site.
5. Ritual Prenatal Vitamins
One thing to know about iron and calcium in vitamins: “They compete with each other for absorption,” says Alyssa Dweck, MD, an ob-gyn in Westchester County, New York, and co-author of V Is for Vagina. “I recommend getting iron from a vitamin and calcium from your diet,” she says, since it’s much easier to get calcium from foods (think: dairy, greens) than iron. This vitamin doesn’t contain calcium, which may help you better absorb the iron in it (which could be especially important if you’re anemic).
These vitamins’ minty favor is a nice bonus for women experiencing morning sickness, as mint is known to control nausea, Dr. Dweck explains.
6. Thorne Basic Prenatal
This one’s another great choice, according to Felice Gersh, MD, a board-certified ob-gyn and director of Integrative Medical Group of Irvine in Irvine, California, because it also contains the methylated forms of folate and B12. Plus it also has more even more folate (a full milligram more, in fact) than most vitamins out there, which makes it ideal for women who don’t get enough green leafy vegetables into their diet.
Another plus? “This vitamin is also high in vitamin D and provides a healthy blend of calcium citrate and malate, though it does take three capsules daily though to get these amounts,” she says, which differs from the usual one-pill regiment for most prenatal vitamins.
7. Garden of Life Vitamin Code Raw Prenatal
In addition to being a good source of vitamin D, it also offers a blend of vitamin A, which is known for being beneficial for your (and your fetus’) eyes per the WHO, and contains ginger to soothe nausea, probiotics that support your immune system, and an organic vegetable blend.
“This is a great option for women looking for a very affordable option without any unhealthy binders and fillers,” Dr. Gersh adds.
Unlike the others on the list thus far, this small, easy-to-tolerate (read: less risk of GI distress) pill is only available through an Rx from your doc. So now you’re probably wondering: is a prescription prenatal better than an OTC? Not necessarily, according to Dr. McDonald, who says she doesn’t having a preference for one over the other.
What draws people to an Rx option rather than the more “trendy” OTC products is that your health insurance might cover the cost if the specific prenatal fits your plan, Dr. Dweck explains. If that sounds like something you’d be interested in, consult your insurance plan to see what, if any prenatal vitamins, are covered and then chat about it further with your doc.
9. OB Complete One (+ Petite)
This prescription option recommended by Dr. McDonald stands outs for being loaded with iron—40 mg to be exact—which is particularly great because, per ACOG, during pregnancy your body needs extra iron to help make more blood to carry all that oxygen to the fetus. Just be sure to avoid eating or drinking dairy within 30 minutes of taking this vitamin, as the calcium can interfere with iron absorption, she explains.
10. Prenate Mini
If even the word “vitamin” freaks you out (hi, huge horse pills), Dr. McDonald recommends Prenate Mini, the micro vitamin that still provides you with the essential nutrients needed for a healthy pregnancy. Of particular note is its large amount of DHA—350 mg—which should free you from potentially having to take an added DHA supplement.
Quick reminder: DHA is a type of omega-3 fatty acid (you know, the brain-boosting fat that you can frequently find in fish). Omega-3 fatty acids are believed to play in an important role in the fetus’ brain development before and after birth, according to ACOG, which is why extra DHA is super important.
11. Smarty Pants Prenatal Formula
Gummy vitamins aren’t just for kids. They’re for pregnant women too, especially when they’re packing 18 essential vitamins that all play a role in fetal development. These gummies in particular pack 290 mcg of iodine, which Dr. Woodus says is essential for healthy brain development. Since the recommended intake of it is 220 mcg, these vitamins can help you meet your daily requirement. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend taking iodine while breastfeeding as iodine deficiencies may put infants at risk of associated cognitive and psychomotor impairments.
12. MegaFood Baby & Me 2
Infants of moms who consumed greater amounts of choline during their final trimesters were able to process information at faster rates than the infants of mothers who consumed less, per a 2018 study published in the Journal of the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology. “Choline is important for the development of the baby’s brain and spinal cord,” says Dr. Woodus. These prenatal vitamins from Nature’s Bounty include 300 mg of choline. The recommended daily amount is 450 mg, but Dr. Woodus says the nutrient can also be found in foods like milk, eggs, peanuts, and soy products.
13. Centrum Prenatal + DHA
If you find you’re vitamin D deficient, you may want to seek vitamins that include a little extra (most pack 400 IU), or make sure you’re getting enough of it from other sources like fatty fishes. These Centrum prenatal vitamins fit the bill and include 600 IU of vitamin D.