How to Choose the Right Prenatal Vitamins for You

Birth plan? Check. Baby-name list? Check. Prenatal vitamins? Check. When you're pregnant, making sure you're getting the proper nutrients for your growing baby should be high on your to-do list. According to the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, early and regular prenatal care improves the chance of a healthy pregnancy. As of March 2013, it recommended that women take the following care measures:

  1. Develop a plan for their reproductive life.
  2. Increase their daily intake of folic acid (one of the B vitamins) to at least 400 micrograms.
  3. Make sure their immunizations are up to date.
  4. Control diabetes and other medical conditions.
  5. Avoid smoking, drinking alcohol, and using drugs.
  6. Attain a healthy weight.
  7. Learn about their family health history and that of their partner.
  8. Seek help for depression or anxiety.

The bottom line: being vigilant about your health is the best thing you can do for you and your baby. And as the guidelines suggest, one area of focus is your lifestyle and diet. While eating healthy is the most important step in getting the nutrients you need, doctors recommend taking prenatal vitamins, especially when your diet may be temporarily upended first by morning sickness and then by weird cravings. Even if you were already taking a multivitamin before pregnancy, discuss with your doctor how you should modify your vitamin regimen to get what's most beneficial for your developing baby.

Prenatal vitamins are different from regular multivitamins; their vitamin and mineral makeup are carefully calibrated to meet the needs of a pregnancy. While it is generally safe to take a prenatal with other medications, it is not advisable to take them with your regular multivitamin. High doses of certain ingredients could be harmful to your baby, so speak to your doctor about what to take. Experts also recommend that new mothers continue to take prenatal vitamins while they are breastfeeding, so this information will still be important for you after your baby arrives.

Here are the key nutrients that you commonly find in prenatal vitamins, and how they're good for you and your baby:

Folic acid: According to a study published in the Journal of Prenatal Medicine in 2008, folic acid, a form of folate, can prevent or reduce neural tube defects by as much as 70%. Because your baby's neural tube (which will become the brain and spinal cord) develops during the first month of pregnancy, it's important to have enough folic acid in your diet even before you are pregnant. For that reason, many women begin a prenatal vitamin regimen when they start trying to conceive. The National Institute of Health (NIH) recommended, as of April 2016, that women who could become pregnant "should consume 400 mcg of folic acid daily from supplements, fortified foods, or both in addition to the folate they get naturally from foods."

Calcium and Vitamin D: Calcium and Vitamin D, which helps absorb calcium, are key, especially in the third trimester, when your baby's bones are growing and getting stronger, and while you're breastfeeding. If you are not getting enough calcium in your diet, your developing baby will get the calcium needed to grow from your bones. Luckily, women's bodies absorb calcium from food and supplements more efficiently during pregnancy, and any loss of bone mass is usually restored a few months after childbirth and/or breastfeeding. In addition, the NIH maintained (as of June 2016) that "taking calcium supplements during pregnancy (1,000 mg a day or more) reduces the risk of preeclampsia," a dangerous condition in which the mother develops high blood pressure and kidney problems.

Iron: The amount of blood in a woman's body increases during pregnancy, making it crucial to maintain a healthy level of iron. According to the NIH (as of February 2016), "Getting too little iron during pregnancy increases a woman's risk of iron deficiency anemia and her infant's risk of low birthweight, premature birth, and low levels of iron. Getting too little iron might also harm her infant’s brain development." Women who are pregnant or breastfeeding should take an iron supplement as recommended by an obstetrician or other health care provider.

DHA: This Omega-3 fatty acid is believed to help with brain development, and is good for both mother and baby. According to an official study published in 2008, "DHA is particularly important for fetal development of the brain and retina during the third trimester and up to 18 months of life."

  1. MOM TIP: Though fish is a good source of DHA, pregnant women need to be careful of how much fish—and what kind—they eat during pregnancy. Because some fish have high levels of mercury, supplements are a safer way to get Omega-3 fatty acids. Check out the FDA's fish safety guidelines from June 2014 for its recommendations. Sorry, raw sushi is also a no-no, because pregnant women may not be as equipped to battle food-borne illness.

This guide will show you the differences between the types of prenatal vitamins that are available now.

Traditional Prenatal Vitamins

There are so many different brands and formulations of prenatal vitamins on the market today that there's likely something for your specific needs. Vitamins come in tablet, softgel, chewable, gummy, and powder form.

The Basics: While most prenatal vitamins on the market contain similar amounts of folic acid, iron, and other nutrients recommended by doctors, they do vary, and not all include DHA. You'll want to do some comparison shopping. Be sure the product (or products) you choose contain the amounts of nutrients that your doctor recommends.

Some prenatal vitamins come in a combination pack (one is a multivitamin, the other a DHA supplement), such as this one by One a Day.

Other brands, like Nature Made's softgel, are all-in-one. For some people, it's more convenient to get your needed vitamins all in one shot, but sometimes that's a big pill to swallow—literally.

Folic Acid vs. Folate: Folic acid and folate are key components of all prenatal vitamins, but what is the difference? Folate, also known as vitamin B-9, is found naturally in foods. Folic acid is the synthetic form of folate that is used in nutritional supplements. Folic acid has long been accepted as a core part of prenatal vitamins, though some brands are now listing folate on their ingredients list instead.

Dietary Concerns: There are vitamins on the market that cater to certain dietary needs. For vegetarians, vegans, and other women concerned with consuming fish products, they can find brands that get their DHA from non-fish sources. (Even if you don't have a problem consuming fish, you might want to try a different source if you're sensitive to the "fishy aftertaste" that some fish-based Omega-3s have.)

New Chapter is a popular brand that is 100% vegetarian and organic. It also contains a probiotic, which helps with digestion, and is gentle even when taken on an empty stomach.

  1. MOM TIP: Caed'sMom review of Nordic Naturals Prenatal DHA softgels contains a clever piece of advice on how to avoid the fishy aftertaste of supplements:

    "A tip for all of you complaining about fish burps....stick the bottle in your freezer and take the pills frozen. This causes no harm or change in the pill's substance and completely eliminates any odor or fishy-smelling burps."

Prenatal Vitamins for Sensitive Stomachs

When you're pregnant, it isn't always easy to keep food—or anything else you ingest—down. With everything else going on with your life (and body!), pick a time of day when you'll remember to take your vitamins. Many people will take them with a meal, which helps if you have a sensitive stomach. If you're suffering from morning sickness, lunch or dinner might be best, or right before you go to bed. Vitamins now come in all different forms, so you can choose what's easiest for you to take.

Take It Easy: Chewable, softgel, or gummy prenatal vitamins may be a better option for you if you find regular tablets too hard to swallow. Most brands offer a variety of formats (and size of pill) that may suit your needs.

Vitafusion makes a popular gummy prenatal that contains DHA and folic acid. With its lemon and raspberry lemonade flavors, some moms have reported actually looking forward to taking these vitamins every day.

Keeping It Down: Some prenatal vitamins include ingredients like ginger, which is a traditional remedy for upset stomachs and nausea, and probiotics, which can help with digestion. Other brands offer vitamins in flavors like strawberry, which can help with the aftertaste. Take a look at the fine print to see what extras are in the prenatal vitamins you choose.

Smell Test: During pregnancy, many women experience a heightened sense of smell. Some prenatal vitamins may have an unappealing scent—in particular those with DHA can seem fishy. If your stomach is sensitive, make sure you find a prenatal choice that doesn't make you sick even before you take it. Check out all the reviews—fishiness is an extremely common complaint from those who take prenatal vitamins.

  1. MOM TIP:If you don't mind tablets, but don't want to have to swallow several at once, shop for a brand that requires only one pill, such as Rainbow Lite Prenatal One. MissMissy said this about the Prenatal One:

    "This is my second pregnancy and during the first pregnancy I insisted on taking a plant based vitamin that was 4 capsules a day. That was really hard to sustain, and I found that my stomach would get upset easily. However, with this pregnancy I chose this vitamin because it required only one capsule a day, and I take it at night before bed, to minimize any stomach upset. So far, my stomach has never been upset, and I'm 38 weeks pregnant. Very happy with them. No bad taste or smell."

Prenatal Drinks

For some women, taking pills—of whatever form and consistency—just doesn't fit their lifestyle. Luckily, there are new products on the market that make it easier to get the necessary nutrients for you and your baby.

Drink Your Vitamins: Prenatal vitamin drink mixes are for women who prefer their nutrients in liquid form, such as this line by Premama. Mixed with water or juice, they're easy to take any time of day.

Taking your vitamins this way has its benefits. First, it helps you reach the 64 ounces of fluid you should have per day while you're pregnant. Also, some pregnant women find the extra iron in prenatal vitamins leads to constipation. Drinking lots of fluids, in addition to a high-fiber diet, helps with this problem.

Goes Down Smooth: If smoothies and protein drinks are an important part of your busy life, look for powders fortified with prenatal vitamins. These products make it easy for active moms-to-be to get their needed nutrients—vitamins as well as protein—in a convenient formulation that they're used to. Baby Booster Prenatal Protein Powder comes in three delicious smoothie flavors: mocha, vanilla, and piña colada.

Exercise is important during pregnancy. And what better time to enjoy your prenatal vitamin-filled smoothie than after a good workout. If you feel that your usual routine just isn't right for you during this time, try something new. Prenatal yoga and swimming are two activities that will give your body a healthy workout—and also offer some much-needed relaxation.

Sit and Sip: If prenatal vitamins and supplements are still not sitting well, teas, such as Healthy Mama's Calm the Crazy!, are another way to help settle your stomach and relax. With ingredients such as peppermint and ginger, these teas are a natural and safe way to fend off those queasy moments. Teas can be useful for breastfeeding moms as well. Brands such as the Earth Mama Angel Baby line have herbs that can potentially increase milk production.

  1. MOM TIP: Prenatal drinks can double as a healthy snack. Jennifer G. found a successful recipe with the Baby Booster Prenatal Protein Powder:

    "After struggling to satisfy my pregnancy appetite while not packing on the pounds, I started looking for a pregnancy protein supplement. When I stumbled upon this one, I was a little nervous about the potential for an aftertaste because of past experiences with other protein powders and a hatred for Stevia. I blended this with nonfat milk, a little bit of nonfat greek yogurt, a little sunflower butter and a banana. I would recommend adding a bit of ice if you like your drinks super cold, but I was thrilled with the taste! Even has kept me full for hours and has definitely given me a burst of energy that I so desperately need these days. This will definitely be a staple for me throughout the rest of my pregnancy."