What To Look For In A Prenatal Vitamin

A pregnant woman looks at a supplement bottle while sitting in a gray couch.

While a balanced diet rich in nutrients is always going to be foundational, prenatal vitamins play an important role in filling any nutritional gaps, ensuring both mother and baby receive all the essential nutrients they need in order to thrive.

The creation of a human being during pregnancy is something that will never cease to amaze me, especially considering the large amount of nutrients this incredible process requires (1). Nutrients are the building blocks of cells and fuel sources for all kinds of processes in the body (2). While a balanced diet rich in nutrients is always going to be foundational, prenatal vitamins play an important role in filling any nutritional gaps, ensuring both mother and baby receive all the essential nutrients they need in order to thrive.


It can be confusing navigating a market filled with hundreds of prenatals. During pregnancy the stakes feel higher than ever because this is one of the first decisions you are making for your baby's well-being. Dietary supplements are not FDA regulated, and it is worth taking some time to understand what to look for in a prenatal vitamin. This article describes the main nutrients to look for in your prenatal vitamin and why they are necessary as well as provides some tips on how to select a prenatal you can trust.

Folic Acid, Folate, And Methyl Folate… Oh My!

Folic acid is touted as the must have nutrient for those who are pregnant or trying to conceive. And while it is true that folate is indispensable for a healthy pregnancy, there is an important distinction between the various forms of this nutrient. Most prenatal supplements contain folic acid, which is the synthetic version of folate. However, not all women can process folic acid efficiently due to MTHFR genetic variations that may affect up to 40% of the population (3). These variations can impede the conversion of folic acid to its active form (4).

Folate is the nutrient that is naturally present in whole foods, like beef liver and leafy greens. The optimal choice for prenatal care is a supplement that includes folate or methyl folate, which is the methylated or active form of folate. Opting for methylated folate rather than synthetic folic acid allows for proper absorption and utilization by all, regardless of genetic makeup. Look for the following terms on the nutrition label of your prenatal: L-5-methyltetrahydrofolate, methylfolate, 5-MTHF, L-5-MTHF or (6S)-5-MTHF. These are all various names for methylated folate.


Folate is indispensable for DNA synthesis, cell division, and mitigating the risk of neural tube defects — all incredibly important for the healthy growth of the fetus. If you plan to conceive in the next year, begin supplementing right away with a prenatal that contains folate to build up the stores in your body.

A doctor puts a stethoscope on a pregnant woman

Methyl B12 In A Prenatal Vitamin

Methyl B12, also known as Methylcobalamin, stands out among the various forms of vitamin B12 because it may be absorbed more effectively by some individuals (5). In its methylated form, the nutrient is already in its bioactive state, which means it doesn't require the body to convert it to be used biologically. 


As is the case with methyl folate, some people may have trouble properly utilizing the non-methylated form of B12. This is particularly important during pregnancy when the body's demand for efficient nutrient use is heightened. Check supplement labels and look out for products that use cyanocobalamin as this is a synthetic version of B12, and instead look for prenatals that contain Methylcobalamin or Methyl B12.


B12 is required by the body for the creation of DNA and the development of the nervous system (6). Opting for a prenatal vitamin with Methyl B12 provides support for the baby's healthy neural development and the maintenance of the mother's energy levels.


Not currently pregnant but looking for a methylated source of Folate and B12? Check out Methyl Factors™.

The Importance Of Choline In A Prenatal Vitamin

Choline is required for acetylcholine production, a neurotransmitter that's needed for many bodily functions, including memory, muscle control, and more. During pregnancy, choline's impact is multifaceted: it supports the mother's liver function and metabolism and it plays a role in the fetus's brain development and neural tube formation (7).


Moreover, choline supports the body's use of omega-3 fatty acids, such as DHA, that are important for normal cognitive development. In fact, a 2022 study highlighted that increased maternal choline intake during the 3rd trimester of pregnancy was linked to improved attention in children. It is estimated that 90-95% of pregnant women do not consume sufficient choline (7), yet choline is not always present in all prenatal vitamins, and when it is, the amounts present are often low. Our Prenatal & Postnatal Daily Nutrients supplement contains plenty of choline, helping ensure sufficient intake. 

Vitamin D3 In A Prenatal Vitamin

Vitamin D should be abundant in prenatal vitamins. It aids in the absorption of calcium and phosphorus (8) — critical for developing the baby’s bones and teeth (9) — and supports the mother's immune system (10) and blood pressure (11). Vitamin D is also supportive of a healthy full-term pregnancy (12).


When deciding which prenatal vitamin to choose, look for Vitamin D3 rather than D2 on the label because Vitamin D3 is the form that is naturally produced by the body when exposed to sunlight and research shows it may be more effectively utilized and stored in the body (13).

Iron: An Important Nutrient For Pregnancy

Iron is important for the formation of healthy red blood cells and transporting oxygen in both the mother and the baby. Sufficient iron intake supports the normal development of the placenta and fetus, and it is also important for the mother's cognitive function and energy levels (14).


Some people don’t feel great when supplementing iron, and this may be especially true for pregnant women as they can be more susceptible to nausea. Iron bisglycinate is known to be easier on the stomach so you may wish to look for this form of iron on supplement labels.

What Other Nutrients Should Your Prenatal Contain?

Beyond the nutrients already mentioned, a well-rounded prenatal vitamin should include a spectrum of other vitamins and minerals that support both maternal health and fetal development.

Vitamin A


Sufficient vitamin A intake is required for normal fetal growth and development, vision health (15), and immune function (16). While it's an essential vitamin, it's important to be aware of your vitamin A intake amounts during pregnancy, especially if you are taking multiple supplements at once, as excessive amounts of retinol (the animal form of vitamin A) can be harmful (16).


In my clinical experience, I tend to see insufficient vitamin A intake more so than excessive intake. That said, opting for prenatals containing vitamin A in the form of beta-carotene — the plant-based form that the body converts to vitamin A as needed — is one way to help ensure you don’t exceed recommended intake amounts if you already consume a diet high in retinol or are taking other retinol containing supplements.


For more on Vitamin A supplementation during pregnancy and breastfeeding, see: Vitamin A Supplementation For Moms.

Calcium


Calcium is necessary for building a strong skeletal structure for the baby. It's also essential for the mother, as pregnancy can increase the body’s demand for calcium. If maternal intake isn’t sufficient, a mother’s bone mass could be affected due to the fetus utilizing the mother’s skeletal calcium stores for bone growth (17).


Magnesium


Magnesium works in tandem with calcium, and sufficient intake is important for a vast array of cellular processes. Sufficient magnesium intake can soothe occasional leg cramping (18) — a common complaint in pregnancy — and is supportive of a healthy full-term pregnancy (19).


Zinc


Zinc is crucial for cell growth and the replication of DNA (20). This mineral is involved in various enzyme systems and plays a role in maintaining the structural integrity of proteins and cell membranes (21).


Iodine


Sufficient iodine intake during pregnancy is crucial for the development of the fetal brain and for the regulation of the thyroid. An iodine deficiency can lead to developmental delays and affect the baby's brain function (22).


Vitamin K


Vitamin K is necessary for the development of a baby's bones (23). Look for prenatals that contain vitamin K2, which may be more effective than K1 for bone development (24).


For more on Vitamin K, read: Why Infants Get Vitamin K1 At Birth.


Selenium


Selenium is a powerful antioxidant that the body utilizes to prevent damage caused by oxidative stress (25). For pregnant women, adequate selenium intake is important for immune function and thyroid hormone metabolism (26).


Vitamin B6


Vitamin B6 is essential for brain development and function (27). It also plays a role in mood regulation (27) and can be helpful for women experiencing occasional morning sickness during pregnancy (28).

Should My Prenatal Vitamin Contain Omega-3?

Omega-3 fatty acids, particularly DHA and EPA, play an important role during pregnancy, with sufficient intake supporting fetal brain and eye development (29) and supporting full term pregnancy. Yet, many prenatals do not contain Omega-3, including ours. 


Here is why: There is a significant argument for choosing prenatals that do not contain omega-3, and instead consuming omega-3 as a separate standalone supplement. The reason lies in the dosage and purity concerns.


Standalone omega-3 supplements often provide a higher concentration of these essential fatty acids, ensuring that pregnant women receive adequate amounts. 


Furthermore, standalone supplements allow for more control over the quality and source of omega-3, which is important for avoiding contaminants like heavy metals that can be found in low-quality fish oil products.

Additional Considerations For Choosing A Prenatal Vitamin

When choosing a prenatal vitamin, it is important to understand that dietary supplements, including prenatals, are not regulated by the FDA, and so as informed consumers we should be seeking out products that have undergone third-party testing. Third-party testing by reputable organizations ensures that the supplement meets safety standards, contains the ingredients listed on the label, and is free from harmful levels of contaminants. At Dr Green Life, we publish our third-party test results on the product page of each supplement.


Another consideration is the format of the prenatal vitamin. Many prenatal vitamins are designed to be taken in multiple pills throughout the day rather than in a single dose. This may seem tedious, but this approach can enhance the absorption of essential nutrients, particularly calcium, and is a reason to seek out prenatals where the daily dose is split over multiple pills. The body can only absorb a certain amount of calcium at once, and spreading intake throughout the day can maximize absorption and efficacy. Additionally, this can help mitigate the digestive discomfort that can sometimes accompany prenatal supplements.

How Long Should I Take My Prenatal Vitamin For?

Ideally, we would all start taking prenatal vitamins at least three months prior to conception, as this helps build up the body's stores of crucial nutrients, such as folate which plays a key role in early fetal development.


Continuing to take your prenatal vitamin throughout pregnancy supports the ongoing development of the fetus and helps maintain the mother's health.


During the postpartum period, regardless of breastfeeding status, taking a prenatal or postnatal vitamin can provide vital nutrients that support the mother's recovery.


Did you enjoy this article? You may also like: When To Take Vitamins For Maximum Benefit 

Summary

Choosing which prenatal vitamin to take can feel overwhelming. Key nutrients to look for include methylated forms of folate and vitamin B12 as well as choline, vitamin D3, iron, and a spectrum of other vitamins and minerals — such as vitamin A, calcium, magnesium, zinc, iodine, and more. As with all supplements, look for prenatals that have undergone third-party testing to help assure quality and safety. Ideally, supplementation with a prenatal vitamin would begin at least three months before conception and continue throughout pregnancy and the postpartum period.

References:

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