Understanding Prenatal Vitamins

Updated June 3, 2022
Pregnant woman reading prenatal vitamin label in pharmacy

Prenatal vitamins can be taken before conception, during pregnancy, and at times, even after delivery. They contain the necessary vitamins and minerals that are needed during pregnancy and can be found over-the-counter or may be prescribed by your doctor. Organizations like the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) provide recommendations that can help you find out what nutrients you need and in what amounts.

Essential Prenatal Vitamins

While the best way to get your nutrients is by eating healthy, there may still be times when there are nutritional deficiencies in your diet. This is when prenatal vitamins are especially helpful. Prenatal vitamins are meant to supplement a healthy lifestyle and never meant to be a substitute for a good, well-balanced diet.

In general, prenatal vitamins contain the vitamins and minerals that your body needs when you're pregnant. Your diet may not include enough of a certain nutrient and this is when prenatal vitamins are necessary. This is especially true for the following nutrients:

Folic Acid

According to ACOG, a pregnant woman needs 600 mcg of folic acid each day. Folic acid is a B vitamin that may help prevent some birth defects. The CDC recommends that all women of childbearing age get at least 400 mcg of folic acid per day.

Some foods (like rice, bread, pasta, and cereal) are fortified with folic acid. But according to ACOG, it can be hard to get enough of this important nutrient from diet alone. So the group recommends taking a prenatal vitamin with at least 400 mcg starting at least one month before getting pregnant. They also recommend that you continue taking it during the first 12 weeks of pregnancy.


When you are pregnant, you need extra iron. This helps your body produce more blood that will ultimately provide oxygen to your baby. The recommended amount of iron is 27 mg when pregnant, which is nearly double the amount needed when you are not pregnant.

Additional Supplements

A healthy diet should provide you with the recommended amount of vitamins and minerals. However, there are times when you may need a supplement in addition to your prenatal vitamin. For example, omega-3 fatty acids that are found in fish are important to a baby's brain development. If you do not eat fish, you may need a fish oil supplement. Prior to taking any additional supplements, you should discuss this with your doctor.

Prenatal Vitamins vs. Regular Vitamins

It is important to understand the difference between prenatal and regular multivitamins, their makeup, and what each is used for.

Prenatal Vitamins

Prenatal vitamins are specifically designed and formulated for women who are trying to conceive or are already pregnant. The nutrients in prenatal vitamins are essential to your health and your baby's growth and development.

Regular Multivitamins

Multivitamins are vitamins that are used by people of all ages for their overall, general health and well-being. While multivitamins are appropriate for most people, they do not contain the necessary nutrients needed for a woman during her pregnancy.

A selection of vitamins and herbal supplements

When Should You Take Prenatal Vitamins

You should actually take prenatal vitamins before, during, and after pregnancy.

Before Conceiving

If you are planning for pregnancy, it is recommended that you start taking prenatal vitamins about three months prior to conception. This will help your body get ready for pregnancy and it will help reduce the risks of birth defects for your baby.

During Pregnancy

It is beneficial to consistently take your prenatal vitamins throughout your pregnancy. Not only will you and your baby receive the necessary nutrients needed during your pregnancy, it will also help ensure a healthy pregnancy for you and your baby.

After Delivery

It is recommended that you continue to take your prenatal vitamins until you stop breastfeeding. This will help maintain the necessary nutrients needed for the nutritional support of your growing baby.

Different Types of Prenatal Vitamins

The different types of prenatal vitamins include:

Prescription Prenatal Vitamins

Prescription prenatal vitamins may be an option for you and is especially beneficial if your insurance covers prescription prenatal vitamins.

Over-the-Counter Prenatal Vitamins

There are many over-the-counter prenatal vitamins to choose from. You should research and pay close attention to the ingredients so you do not end up with a low-quality vitamin. According to ACOG (The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists), you should specifically be looking for:

  • Folic acid (at least 600 mcg)
  • Iron (27 mg)
  • Calcium (1000 to 1300 mg)
  • Vitamin D (at least 600 IU)

It is also beneficial if your prenatal vitamins contain vitamins A, C, E, iodine, copper, and zinc. Your doctor will help recommend the best vitamin specific for your needs.

Pharmacist assisting Pregnant woman

Other Options

There are a few other types of prenatal vitamins available:

  • Chewable or gummies
  • Liquid form
  • Organic
  • Vegan

Side Effects Associated With Prenatal Vitamins

The side effects that may occur and how to ease or prevent them include:

Nausea or Stomach Upset

Many women experience nausea or have an upset stomach after taking their prenatal vitamin. To avoid this, it is recommended that you take your vitamin with food, or take it at night right before you go to bed.


The iron in your prenatal vitamins may cause constipation. Ways to help prevent this include:

Other possible side effects include, diarrhea, darker stools, cramping and loss of appetite. If you are still experiencing side effects, you should speak with your doctor. He may recommend other options that may help ease the side effects or suggest switching to a different prenatal vitamin.

Can You Overdose on Prenatal Vitamins?

It is possible to overdose on prenatal vitamins, however, it would have to be a rather large dose and it would rarely be life-threatening. Symptoms may include, vomiting, dizziness and seizures. If you are concerned you took too many prenatal vitamins, you should contact your doctor immediately.

Pregnant woman at doctor's office

There is no doubt that prenatal vitamins are beneficial to your health and the health and well-being of your baby. If you should have any concerns about the use of prenatal vitamins or the ingredients, it is always wise to discuss this with your doctor.

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Understanding Prenatal Vitamins