Fitting your prenatal multivitamin in your wellness routine is a good idea

When to Start Taking Prenatal Vitamins

Whether you were trying to conceive for months or years, or your positive pregnancy test is a happy surprise, the day you find out you're pregnant is a day filled with many "to-dos" which all may seem to compete for urgency. You need to: share the great news with your partner and other confidantes, schedule an appointment with your OB/GYN, find a birthing center, babyproof your living room, cancel your skydiving vacation and wine of the month subscription…

Well, before you do any of that, your first step is to start taking a prenatal vitamin ASAP (like yesterday) if you have not already been taking one. This is because the first few weeks of your baby's development are the most critical; your baby's brain and spinal cord development, for example, occurs during this crucial time.

Let's get acquainted with this important nutritional supplement and why it's so important for pregnant and nursing women—as well as those who simply have a glimmer in their eye that they want to be a "someday mom."

How early should you start taking prenatal vitamins?

The earlier, the better. If becoming a parent anytime in the future is on your agenda, you ought to be taking a prenatal supplement. Don't panic if you haven't started; many women don't know they should be supplementing with prenatal vitamins before getting pregnant.

But once you know, hop on that prenatal bandwagon! It's most important to supplement during the first 12 weeks of pregnancy, when your baby is undergoing a lot of critical development.

Not sure which supplement to take or want to make sure you really need one? Every woman will have different nutritional requirements, so speak with your OB/GYN before starting a prenatal supplement.

Do you have to take prenatal multivitamins for the whole 9 months?

Yes! You should take prenatal supplements for the entire nine months of your pregnancy and afterwards, during breastfeeding. While the most critical time to take prenatal vitamins is during the first 12 weeks, you and your baby will benefit from the nutritional support that prenatal vitamins provide after birth.

Pro tip: Don't forget to stop taking other dietary supplements when you start your prenatal dietary supplements—taking too much of a good thing can do more harm than good. Remember: Discussing supplement use with your doctor regularly is important, and it's even more so during pregnancy.

Who Should Take Prenatal Vitamins?

In general, all women of childbearing age who are thinking about becoming a mom someday should supplement their diet with prenatal vitamins because oftentimes you become pregnant before you know it. Prenatal vitamins promote a healthy pregnancy and a healthy baby, helping you ensure that both you and your baby are the healthiest you can be.

A well-balanced diet helps you get most of the necessary nutrients you need to handle the extra demands your body will experience during pregnancy, but your growing baby will also eat up everything you have to offer during their development, so it's imperative that you have enough (or even optimal levels) of the vitamins and minerals you both need—and a prenatal vitamin is an excellent way to do just that!

What are the best prenatal vitamins to take?

Once you've added finding a prenatal multivitamin to the very top of your to-do list, it's easy to feel overwhelmed when you realize how many options are out there. Here's a list of 12 nutrients to look for in your prenatal supplement of choice. And of course, speak with your OB/GYN to make sure you're covering all your bases.

1. Folate

Folic acid is a B vitamin (B9) that supports the baby's and the placenta's growth (especially during the first weeks of pregnancy), and DNA synthesis. B9 also supports brain and spinal cord development. There are different forms of supplemental folate; folic acid is the most common form. Pro tip: Look for L-5-methyltetrahydrofolate (5-MTHF for short) on the label of your prenatal; it's the biologically active form of folate.

2. Fatty acids

Omega-3s, including EPA and DHA, are crucial for your own brain health and support your baby's brain, eyes and cell membrane development. You should continue to make sure you're getting enough of these while breastfeeding. Fill your plate with fatty fish like mackerel, salmon, tuna and even shellfish to get the fatty acids you and your baby will need.

3. Vitamin D

The sunshine vitamin is key for calcium absorption, and supports the healthy development of your baby's bones, teeth, skin and eyes. It's also essential for healthy immune function. Healthy vitamin D levels during pregnancy are vital for brain development, healthy weight and bone mineral density for both mom and baby. Additionally, speech development appears to be better among babies whose moms had adequate vitamin D levels when pregnant.

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4. Calcium

Calcium helps build strong bones and teeth. It may also help support mom's already-healthy blood pressure. It's predominantly found in dairy products, but you can also find calcium in fortified breads and cereals, almonds, sesame seeds, some legumes and veggies and sardines. However, calcium has a "bulky" nature and not many prenatal multivitamins include it. Speak with your doctor to see if you should add calcium to your prenatal arsenal.

5. Vitamin C

Vitamin C is an important antioxidant essential for collagen growth and repair. It is an important cofactor for a multitude of enzymatic reactions. During pregnancy, it helps grow healthy gums, teeth and bones. It also helps promote healthy weight gain and optimal lung and brain development for your baby. You'll find it in citrus fruits (perfect for salads!), tomatoes, broccoli and strawberries.

6. Vitamin A

This essential antioxidant helps support the development of your baby's cells and organs, including their skin, heart, lungs, and especially their eyes. It also helps to support the development of a healthy immune system. Vitamin A may also help support a mom's healthy blood pressure level during pregnancy. Vitamin A is also crucial during breastfeeding, so make sure you replenish your stores in the last trimester of pregnancy. Carrots, sweet potatoes and dark green leafy vegetables are all rich in vitamin A.

7. B vitamins

B vitamins, especially B1 (thiamine), B2 (riboflavin), B3 (niacin), B6 (pyridoxine), B9 (folate), and B12, are essential for supporting the overall development of both baby and placenta. They are also critical in the healthy development of the baby's nervous system, DNA synthesis, and cellular metabolism. The B vitamin family also helps you produce more red blood cells, the ones responsible for carrying oxygen in your blood. B vitamins are excellent to help sustain your energy levels while pregnant. You'll find B vitamins in bananas, milk, whole-grain cereals, meat, fish and poultry.

8. Vitamin E

Vitamin E is an essential antioxidant that's difficult to obtain from your diet alone. Some research suggests it may help support healthy blood sugar levels during the second trimester and later in pregnancy. Vitamin E can be found in wheat germ, sunflower, safflower and soybean oils. You'll also find it in peanuts, almonds, red bell pepper, pumpkin, beet greens, collard greens and spinach.

9. Zinc

Your body may only need small amounts of this trace mineral, but healthy levels are still crucial for supporting a healthy pregnancy through the entire term to ensure your baby develops fully and healthily and reaches a healthy birth weight. You can get zinc from eggs, red meats, poultry, shellfish, nuts, dairy products and fortified foods like breads and cereals.

10. Iron

Iron is very important for healthy blood production. So, making sure you have sufficient levels during your pregnancy is crucial. And research shows that iron supplements are effective at maintaining healthy levels, so don't snooze on taking this mineral. Make sure your meals include leafy greens like spinach, collards, kale and chard, lentils and white beans, artichokes, meats and eggs, nuts and seeds, and dark chocolate (the darker the better!).

Pro tip: Dark chocolate with unsweetened peanut butter is one of our top choices for healthy treats!

11. Iodine

Your body's iodine needs increase when you're pregnant, so it's another vital nutrient for the healthy development of the baby's nervous system.

12. Choline

Choline is also essential for developing your baby's nervous system. It is involved in the production of acetylcholine, an important neurotransmitter involved in muscle control, memory and cognition. During pregnancy, choline is essential for your baby's brain development, liver and placental function. It also helps maintain homocysteine levels already within a normal range, promotes cardiovascular health, and it's crucial for the health and integrity of cell membranes. Rich food sources of choline include milk, soy, peanuts, eggs, cruciferous vegetables like broccoli, poultry, beef and organ meats like liver.

Bottom line: Your nutritional demands increase during pregnancy, for you and your growing baby. Ensuring you get enough of those essential nutrients helps you stay ahead of the game for a healthy pregnancy and a healthy baby. Choose nutrient-rich, whole foods that help you maintain a healthy weight, make extra blood circulate to your growing baby, and optimize your heart, brain, lungs, digestion and mood.

Is it better to take prenatal vitamins in the morning or at night?

Always follow the instructions on the label, but unless otherwise specified, you can take your prenatal vitamin when it best suits your routine. The time of day you take your prenatal won't affect nutrient absorption.

So, take it whenever works best for you—maybe it's at night while you brush your teeth or first thing in the morning with your smoothie. You only need to take your supplement once a day, but you do need to take it every day!

About the Author: Krista Elkins has 20 years of experience in healthcare, both as a paramedic (NRP) and registered nurse (RN). She has worked on both ground and helicopter ambulances (CCP-C, CFRN), and in ER, ICU, primary care, psychiatric, and wilderness medicine. She practices and has a devoted life-long interest in preventative medicine. She is a conscientious, research-driven writer who cares about accuracy and ethics.