What should I look for in a Prenatal Vitamin?

Author: Amber Houghton   Date Posted:4 June 2014 

All nutrients have specific roles to play when preparing for pregnancy, during pregnancy and in the development of the foetus. Some nutrients are needed during specific periods of the baby’s development like folic acid, which is needed on days 27 & 28 to close the neural tube. If there is a deficiency or an inadequate amount of folic acid this can lead to spinal bifida.

It is crucial to have sufficient levels of all nutrients before conceiving, as there is a significant increase in the demand for nutrients during pregnancy. The baby will take all the nutrients it needs from the mother, leaving the mother deficient if she doesn’t have adequate levels of nutrients to cope with the nutrient demands for both her and the baby.

Having an ample supply of nutrients helps ensure both the mother and the baby are having their nutrient needs meet.  Here are just some of the vital nutrients you might look for in a prenatal vitamin- all vital when preparing for pregnancy and during pregnancy:

Folic acid is one of the most talked about nutrients in regards to pregnancy. Adequate levels of folic acid is vital to help reduced the risk of neural tube defects and anencephaly. Research has shown that taking 400 – 500mcg of folic acid daily for 3-4 months prior to conception reduces the incidence of neural tube defects by up to 80%.

Folic acid is also essential for the formation of DNA and RNA and cellular division. Folic acid should be taken alongside other B group vitamins which have multiple health benefits during in the preconception stage, pregnancy and for the foetus.

Iodine is a crucial nutrient during preconception and pregnancy. Iodine is needed for the proper functioning of the thyroid gland and foetal brain development. Thyroid hormones play an important role in the normal growth and development of a foetus in particular its brain and nervous system. The foetus depends on its mother’s iodine levels and thyroid hormones in the first trimester of pregnancy.

Deficient or inadequate levels of iodine can significantly impact the baby’s brain development, reduce the baby’s IQ, stunt its growth and cause retardation, mental disability and cretinism. Studies have shown that iodine levels are declining in Australian women, so it is an essential preconception and pregnancy nutrient.

Restoring iodine levels to an optimal level can take up to five months. The National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC), part of the Australian government, recommends women who are pregnant or trying to conceive supplement with 150mcg of iodine daily.

Iron the demand for iron during pregnancy significantly increases due to the increase in the mother’s blood volume. It is extremely important to have good iron levels and stores before falling pregnant as iron is needed for early foetal brain development, the correct formation of the eyes, bone, blood, for a healthy growth rate and it is needed to help transport oxygen around in the mother’s body.

Additionally the foetus takes iron from the mother which will last for the first 5-6 months of the baby’s life, which also increases iron requirements. Many Australian women are consuming below the recommended daily intake of iron before conceiving. The recommended daily intake for iron during preconception is 18mg per day and during pregnancy it is 27mg per day.

Zinc is one of the most important preconception and pregnancy nutrients. It is essential for both male and female fertility. Zinc plays a vital role in numerous reproductive functions, is involved in over 300 enzyme systems and is crucial for the development and correct formation and functioning of the baby’s brain and immune system. It is also needed for the development of skeletal muscle and bones.

Low and deficient levels of zinc have been associated with foetal growth retardation and prolonged labour. Zinc deficient babies have been shown to cry excessively and are often inconsolable and jittery. The recommended daily intake for zinc in women is 11mg per day and in men it is 14mg per day.

Vitamin C is an extremely important nutrient. It is essential for hormone production, needed for the maturation of the egg, protects against genetic abnormalities, promotes normal ovulation and prevents sperm clumping together. It is also extremely important for foetal bone and skin development and immune system function. The recommended daily intake for vitamin C during pregnancy is 60mg per day.

Other important nutrients during preconception care and pregnancy include:

  • Calcium – the recommended daily intake during in pregnancy is 1000mg per day.
  • Magnesium – the recommended daily intake during pregnancy is 350mg for 19-30yr olds and 360mg for 31-50yr olds.
  • Omega 3 essential fatty acids especially DHA – the recommended daily intake of omega-3’s is 115mg per day.
  • B vitamins - to find the individual recommended daily intake for each B vitamin please refer to the Nutrient Reference Values for Australia and New Zealand.

Read more about preconception and preparing for pregnancy.

Written by Amber Houghton
Amber Houghton

Amber holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Naturopathy, and has a particular passion for nutritious, whole-food eating. She feels education surrounding the best dietary and lifestyle choices are fundamental in allowing people to take responsibility for their own health, and to help with the maintenance of their well-being.

Although passionate about wholesome food, Amber does confess to having a particular fondness for cake, and enjoys a slice every now and then.