How necessary are prenatal vitamins?

What your doctor might prescribe when you're pregnant

prenatal vitamins

Long ago, women successfully had babies without taking prenatal vitamins, so how necessary are they really?

Obviously, a mother’s health directly affects the child she’s carrying from embryo to fetus to baby when she avoids things like drugs, smoking and alcohol, but mom also contributes to baby’s health by consuming essential nutrients like folic acid, calcium, iron, calcium and vitamin D.

Necessary nutrients

According to the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG), women need more of certain nutrients – specifically folic acid and iron – when pregnant and also prior to conception.

Folic acid is a B vitamin that helps prevent neural tube defects – serious birth conditions which affect the brain and spine. Since neural tube defects develop in the first 28 days after conception (which is generally before many women know they are pregnant) 400 micrograms of folic acid daily is recommended for women of childbearing age. Foods that are naturally rich in folic acid include leafy green vegetables like spinach or kale as well as asparagus, broccoli and peas.

Iron is used by your body to make hemoglobin, a substance that facilitates oxygen transport. According to the ACOG, pregnant women need about double the iron that a non-pregnant woman does (about 27 milligrams daily is recommended when expecting) as extra iron is necessary for the growing baby and placenta, especially in the second and third trimesters. Iron-rich foods, include lean red meat, poultry, fish, dried beans and peas, iron-fortified cereals, and prune juice.

“For me, as a vegan/vegetarian, the vitamins were important in helping me fill in gaps in my diet,” says Courtney Skeen, a mother of two from Red Hook. “Growing and feeding a baby demands so much from your body. I can’t imagine how diet alone could provide this to the highest standard, while keeping baby and mommy as healthy as possible.”

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The multivitamin debate

Many doctors prescribe prenatal vitamins to their pregnant patients, but some moms-to-be consider subbing the prescription for multivitamins for women.

“Taking a vitamin specifically for prenatal is one way to assure you are getting exactly what you need. Also there are some formulations of prenatal vitamins that are designed to help with nausea in pregnancy, so it’s a good idea to discuss it with your provider,” says Dr. Sue Parisi, an OB/GYN in Millbrook who incorporates integrative medicine and health coaching into her practice.

“Many multivitamins are formulated for specific age groups and might be fine if you get one designed for women of reproductive age. But some [multi]vitamins [contain] high levels of vitamin A, [which] may be harmful to a developing fetus,” she says. If you do decide to forgo the prenatal vitamins, she advises comparing your multivitamin with prenatal vitamins to ensure the amounts and ingredients are the same.

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The organic connection

Although pre-natal vitamins are designed to help mom and baby get what they need nutritionally, some argue that, just like with foods consumed, the source of those nutrients is just as important as the nutrients themselves.

“Anything a woman eats while pregnant gets passed through to the baby, so eating organic is especially important during pregnancy,” says doula Dana Scarano, of Hudson Valley Birth and Bodywork. “I recommend a high-quality whole food prenatal vitamin.”

“There are so many different brands available,” says Skeen. “Each brand has different doses, too, so you really need to pay attention. Some pills you take once a day while others may be three times a day. Also, like any other vitamin, you can get organic/non-organic, non-GMO/GMO or vegan/vegetarian/gluten-free depending on your dietary needs or preferences.”

Linda Freeman is a freelance writer in the Hudson Valley.