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Prenatal Vitamins: A Detailed Beginner’s Guide

By Sharon Lehman, RDN

Medically Reviewed by Ana Reisdorf, MS, RD

Published on February 7, 2022

With so many prenatal vitamins available, finding the best one can be overwhelming. However, understanding different types of prenatal vitamins and the ingredients they contain can help you choose the right supplement for your pregnancy.

Written by
Sharon Lehman, RDN
Registered Dietitian Nutritionist
Sharon Lehman, RDN is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist and writer with over 10 years of experience in the health and wellness industry. She earned her Bachelor of Science degree in Dietetics and completed her dietetic internship at the University of Delaware and a Master of Education degree from Wilmington University with a concentration in elementary and secondary school-based counseling.
Medically Reviewed by
Ana Reisdorf, MS, RD
Registered Dietitian Nutritionist
Ana Reisdorf is a registered dietitian nutritionist with 14 years of experience in the field of nutrition and dietetics. She graduated from UCLA in 2002 with a degree in psychology and women’s studies and completed her master’s degree from Central Michigan University in 2010
Prenatal Vitamins: A Detailed Beginner’s Guide
Photo credit: iStock.com/SDI Productions

When you’re pregnant, you’re truly eating for two (or perhaps more!). It takes a lot of nutrients to keep an expectant mother well-nourished and to support the growth and development of a whole new person.

The foods you eat contain essential nutrients you and your baby need, but eating perfectly is not always possible. Taking a prenatal vitamin in addition to eating a healthy diet can help meet both of your nutritional needs during pregnancy.

Whether you’re planning to have a baby, are newly pregnant, or are just curious about lifecycle nutrition, here’s everything you need to know about prenatal vitamins.

What Are Prenatal Vitamins?

Prenatal vitamins are multivitamin supplements designed to meet the nutrition needs of women before, during, and after pregnancy.

Pregnancy increases your body’s need for several nutrients, including folic acid, iron, calcium, and vitamins A, C, D, and B. (1)

Prenatal vitamins are formulated with a variety of vitamins and minerals to help meet these nutrient requirements and support the health and normal development of mothers and babies during pregnancy.

What Do Prenatal Vitamins Do?

Prenatal vitamins help “fill in” any essential nutrients that might be missing from your diet.

It’s always preferred to get nutrients from food sources, but due to budget and time constraints, as well as personal preferences, it’s not always possible to eat a variety of foods or eat the same amounts day-to-day.

Some pregnant women struggle with morning sickness, fatigue, food aversions, and food cravings, making it tough to get the nutrition they need.

Since the requirement for certain nutrients is higher during pregnancy, it can also be hard to consistently meet these increased needs with food alone.

Prenatal vitamins help you get enough of these nutrients on a daily basis, which protects you from developing nutrient deficiencies and supports your baby’s development.

Prenatal vitamins are a type of multivitamin, but the formulas differ slightly.

Both prenatal vitamins and multivitamins provide a variety of vitamins and minerals to supplement your diet.

However, prenatal vitamins contain higher amounts of specific vitamins and minerals, including folic acid, iron, vitamin D, calcium, and zinc.

Why Take Prenatal Vitamins?

Besides providing you and your baby with the nutrients needed to support healthy growth and development, regularly taking prenatal vitamins is linked to several critical health benefits for both mother and child.

The health benefits of prenatal vitamins include the following:

Reducing the Risk of Birth Defects

Prenatal vitamins may reduce the risk of congenital disabilities.

Research has found that adequate intake of folic acid can help reduce the risk of your baby developing congenital heart defects and neural tube defects, like spina bifida, as their organs and nervous system form in the womb. (2)

Folic acid and vitamin D are also involved in DNA methylation (gene expression). Getting enough of these nutrients is vital for the normal development and health of both mothers and fetuses. (3)

Relieving Nausea During Pregnancy

Prenatal vitamins may help relieve nausea during pregnancy.

Research has found that the vitamin B6 included in most prenatal vitamins can help improve pregnancy-related nausea and vomiting for many expectant mothers. (4)

Also, some prenatal vitamins are formulated with digestive support blends that include herbal ingredients like ginger. Ginger has been studied and found to improve morning sickness in many pregnant women.

Reducing the Risk for Depression

Prenatal vitamins may reduce the risk for prenatal and postpartum depression.

Depression is linked to low levels of vitamin D. A 2018 systematic review found an association between prenatal and postpartum depression and vitamin D status. (5)

Types of Prenatal Vitamins

Most prenatal vitamins are available over-the-counter in pharmacies, grocery stores, and major retailers. There are also prescription prenatal vitamins that your doctor can order.

Prenatal vitamins are available in several forms, including capsules, softgels, powders, liquids, and gummies.

You should consider the recommended daily serving when choosing between brands and types of prenatal vitamins.

You’ll find some capsule prenatal vitamins that you only need to take one a day and some that you need to take two, three, or four a day. The recommended serving for most gummy vitamins is 2 to 4 gummies per day.

If you have a hard time swallowing pills, you might want to choose a one-a-day formula or a chewable form. Prenatal multivitamin gummies or powders may be a good option if taking a pill-form vitamin makes you feel nauseous.

What Ingredients Are in Prenatal Vitamins?

Folic Acid

Folic acid is one of the most talked-about nutrients during pregnancy.

Getting enough folic acid is critical for the healthy development of the baby’s brain and spinal cord. The brain and spinal cord start forming as the neural tube in the very first weeks of pregnancy.

Maternal anemia and the risk of a baby developing a neural tube defect, like spina bifida, is increased in mothers who don’t get enough folic acid from food and supplements. These defects can develop in the first month before women realize they’re pregnant.

This is why women of childbearing age are told to get enough folic acid even if they’re not actively trying to get pregnant.

The American College of Obstetrics and Gynecologists recommends pregnant women get 600 micrograms of folic acid per day. Most prenatal vitamins provide at least 400 micrograms of folic acid per day. (6)

Folic acid is part of the family of B vitamins. Some good sources of folic acid include:

Iron

A woman’s blood volume doubles during pregnancy to support the growth of the placenta and baby.

Women need more iron during pregnancy to make red blood cells, prevent anemia, and help carry oxygen to the baby.

The requirement for iron during pregnancy is 27 milligrams per day. (7)

Good food sources of iron include:

  • Meat
  • Poultry
  • Beans
  • Iron-fortified grain products

Pairing an iron-rich food with a source of vitamin C, like oranges, strawberries, or bell peppers, can help your body absorb more of the iron it needs.

Calcium

Calcium is needed to support the development of your baby’s bones and teeth. Your body will pull calcium from your bones and teeth to meet your baby’s needs.

Getting enough calcium during pregnancy is essential to protect your bones from losing too much calcium, contributing to the development of dental cavities and low bone density.

Women require 1,000–1,300 milligrams of calcium per day. (8)

Good food sources of calcium include:

  • Milk
  • Yogurt
  • Cheese
  • Broccoli
  • Calcium-set tofu
  • Leafy green vegetables

Vitamin A

Vitamin A helps form your baby’s eyes, skin, and bones. It’s recommended that pregnant women get 770 micrograms of vitamin A per day. (9)

Food sources of vitamin A include:

  • Carrots
  • Wweet potatoes
  • Squash
  • Broccoli
  • Leafy greens
  • Dairy products

Vitamin C

Vitamin C helps your baby’s bones and teeth form. It also supports your immune system and helps your body absorb more iron from the food you eat.

Pregnant women require 85 milligrams of vitamin C per day. (10)

Good food sources of vitamin C include:

  • Strawberries
  • Bell pepper
  • Citrus fruit
  • Kiwi
  • Tomatoes

Vitamin D

Vitamin D partners with calcium to help your baby’s bones and teeth develop. Vitamin D also helps your baby’s skin and eyes develop.

Low vitamin D status in women has also been associated with depression during and after pregnancy.

Pregnant women require at least 600 IU (international units) of vitamin D per day.

Food sources of vitamin D include:

  • Egg yolks
  • Salmon
  • Fortified dairy and non-dairy products

B Vitamins

In addition to folic acid, most prenatal vitamins contain several B vitamins, including riboflavin, thiamine, niacin, vitamin B6, vitamin B12, biotin, and pantothenic acid.

The B vitamins are involved in maternal energy production and help the development of your baby’s brain and nervous system.

B vitamins are found in:

  • Dairy products
  • Meat
  • Poultry
  • Whole grains

If you’re vegetarian or vegan, look for a prenatal vitamin that provides the recommended daily amounts for vitamin B6 (1.9 milligrams/day) and vitamin B12 (2.6 milligrams/day), primarily found in animal foods. (11, 12)

Related: Supplements to Take on a Vegan Diet, According to a Dietitian

Choline

Choline is essential for the normal development of a baby’s brain and spinal cord. Pregnant women need 450 milligrams of choline per day. (13)

Not all prenatal vitamins contain choline, so check the Supplement Facts label.

Choline is found in:

  • Meat
  • Poultry
  • Fish
  • Eggs
  • Tofu
  • Cruciferous vegetables (broccoli, cauliflower, Brussel sprouts, etc.)

Iodine

Iodine is a mineral involved in thyroid function and supports the development of your baby’s brain. It’s important to get enough iodine during pregnancy to prevent thyroid disorders.

It’s recommended that pregnant women get 220 micrograms of iodine per day through dietary sources and supplementation. (14)

Not all prenatal vitamins contain iodine, so check the Supplement Facts label.

Food sources of iodine include:

  • Iodized salt
  • Fish
  • Shellfish
  • Sea vegetables (seaweed, etc.)
  • Dairy products

EPA/DHA

Some prenatal vitamins contain EPA and DHA, which are types of omega-3 fatty acids.

Although research is inconclusive, some health professionals believe omega-3 fatty acids support the development of a baby’s vision and cognition. (15)

Pregnant women are advised to eat two servings of low-mercury fish a week to help meet their needs for omega-3 fatty acids.

If you don’t eat fish that often or at all, choosing a prenatal vitamin with added EPA and DHA can help you get these omega-3 fatty acids.

There are fish-free, algae-based omega-3 supplements available as well.

Related: Food That Are Very High in Omega-3, According to a Dietitian

Side Effects and Safety

Some women experience minor side effects from their prenatal vitamins. Common side effects include nausea and constipation.

If you feel nauseous after taking your prenatal vitamin, try taking it with food and see if that relieves nausea.

The iron content in prenatal vitamins gives some women constipation.

If you’re struggling to have regular bowel movements, speak with your doctor. They may advise you to take a supplement with less iron or try a stool softener to make going to the bathroom easier.

You can also try to relieve constipation by increasing the amount of water you drink and eating more fiber-rich foods.

Good sources of fiber are:

  • Fresh fruit
  • Vegetables
  • Legumes
  • Whole grains (oats, brown rice, etc.)

You should follow the dosage instructions on the Supplement Facts Label of your prenatal vitamin and take one serving per day.

You shouldn’t take more than one serving or take additional supplements unless your doctor tells you to. High intakes of some nutrients, such as vitamin A, may cause harm to an unborn baby.

Like other supplements, prenatal vitamins are not closely regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) prior to being sold to consumers.

A supplement with a third-party testing seal can offer extra peace of mind that your prenatal vitamin is safe.

Third-party testing ensures your supplement contains pure ingredients, has been developed with good manufacturing practices, and is free of toxins, like heavy metals.

Common third-party testing seals include NSF International, USP, and ConsumerLab.

When to Start Taking Prenatal Vitamins

Daily vitamin and mineral supplementation and a varied diet that includes nutrient-dense foods, like fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, are essential for maternal health before, during, and after pregnancy.

The best time to start taking prenatal vitamins is before becoming pregnant because critical fetal development begins as soon as you conceive.

Whether you’re planning to become pregnant or not, if you’re sexually active and of reproductive age, it’s a good idea to take a prenatal vitamin.

Taking vitamins before you become pregnant can help give you and your baby access to essential vitamins and minerals from day one, should pregnancy occur.

As previously mentioned, adequate folic acid intake during pregnancy is essential for normal development of the brain and spinal cord and reducing the chance of your baby being born with a congenital disability.

The American College of Obstetrics and Gynecologists recommends taking a prenatal vitamin containing at least 400 micrograms of folic acid at least one month before conception. (6)

The next best time to start a prenatal vitamin is as soon as you find out you’re pregnant. Don’t panic if you discover you’re pregnant and haven’t been taking a prenatal vitamin.

Make an appointment to see your healthcare professional and when you call, ask for a prenatal vitamin recommendation so you can start taking one right away.

Most pharmacies, supermarkets, and vitamin stores carry a variety of prenatal vitamins, so it’s easy to access them as soon as you know you’re pregnant.

Additional Tips

Taking your vitamin at the same time each day can help it become part of your routine, so you don’t miss a serving.

Some women find they’re too nauseous in the morning to take their prenatal vitamins. If this happens to you, try taking your vitamin later in the day, such as before bed, or with a meal.

The best prenatal vitamin for you is the one you can tolerate. When I was pregnant, I used several brands and forms of prenatal vitamins depending on what phase of pregnancy I was in.

If you’re dealing with morning sickness, prenatal gummy vitamin or liquid may be a better option early on in pregnancy.

In later months you may be able to swallow pills more easily and might want to try a different prenatal vitamin.

Once you’re taking prenatal vitamins, you still need to include vitamin and mineral-rich foods to meet both you and your baby’s nutritional needs during pregnancy and beyond.

A healthy diet before, during, and after pregnancy should include a variety of fruit, vegetables, whole grains, healthy fats, animal or plant-based proteins, and plenty of water.

The Bottom Line

Prenatal vitamins contain several vitamins and minerals to support gaps in nutrition, similar to a daily multivitamin.

They contain higher amounts of key nutrients, including folate/folic acid, calcium, vitamin D, and iron, which women need more of during pregnancy.

If you’re a woman of childbearing age, it’s a good idea to take a daily prenatal vitamin to ensure your body has access to the vitamins and minerals it needs should you become pregnant.

You should speak with your healthcare provider before taking any supplement.

If you’re not sure which prenatal vitamin to choose or you’re experiencing side effects with your current supplement, your doctor can help you find the best prenatal vitamin for your needs.

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At WellnessVerge, we only use primary references for our articles, including peer reviewed medical journals or well-respected academic institutions.

  1. Nutrition Recommendations in Pregnancy and Lactation:
    https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5104202/
  2. Folic Acid Supplementation and Pregnancy: More Than Just Neural Tube Defect Prevention:
    https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3218540/
  3. Effects of Maternal Vitamin D Supplementation on the Maternal and Infant Epigenome:
    https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/29782187/
  4. Treatments for Hyperemesis Gravidarum and Nausea and Vomiting in Pregnancy: A Systematic Review:
    https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/27701665/
  5. Vitamin D Deficiency and Antenatal and Postpartum Depression: A Systematic Review:
    https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5946263/
  6. Nutrition During Pregnancy:
    https://www.acog.org/womens-health/faqs/nutrition-during-pregnancy
  7. NIH: Iron:
    https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/Iron-Consumer/
  8. NIH: Calcium:
    https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/Calcium-Consumer/
  9. NIH: Vitamin A:
    https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/VitaminA-Consumer/
  10. NIH: Vitamin C:
    https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/VitaminC-Consumer/
  11. NIH: Vitamin B6:
    https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/VitaminB6-Consumer/
  12. NIH: Vitamin B12:
    https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/VitaminB12-Consumer/
  13. NIH: Choline:
    https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/Choline-Consumer/
  14. NIH: Iodine:
    https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/Iodine-Consumer/
  15. Impact of omega-3 fatty acid DHA and EPA supplementation in pregnant or breast-feeding women on cognitive performance of children: systematic review and meta-analysis:
    https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/32918470/