Prenatal vitamins are often one of the first things a mom-to-be reaches for when she learns about her pregnancy, and for good reason. The majority of prenatal vitamins can be easily purchased without a prescription, often at your favorite grocery store. They’re easy to take, have essentially no significant side effects, and offer peace of mind alongside of nutritional benefits.
Unfortunately, even something as relatively straightforward as prenatal vitamins has been clouded by rumor, misinformation, and even misleading marketing.
Here are three things to keep in mind the next time you’re considering prenatal vitamins:
1. Expensive doesn’t mean better
The old adage, “You get what you pay for,” might apply to cars, laptops, and other technology, but vitamins are very different. Prenatal vitamins, no matter how expensive, are still simply a dietary supplement. They provide additional vitamins, minerals, and trace elements that your body needs during pregnancy. While more expensive varieties may boast about new formulations or ingenious new delivery systems, or fewer side effects, none of those things indicate superiority.
In fact, “new formulations” can sometimes be a way to increase prices and drug company profits. United States patents on expensive medications expire every 17 years, so it could be possible that a “new innovation” is simply an unnecessary change dreamt up in order to patent a new formula. A critical eye can help prevent you from paying inflated prices for 3 cents worth of vitamins.
Generally speaking, if you find yourself in a position to choose between expensive vitamins and an inexpensive generic brand, you shouldn’t feel bad about choosing the less expensive variety. Both will provide the supplements you need and your baby certainly won’t suffer for the difference.
2. An extra folic acid supplement is likely unnecessary
Pregnant women have often been told by doctors and friends about the importance of folic acid and its role in preventing spinal bifida (a birth defect involving an opening over the spinal cord). Spina bifida occurs in about 1:1,500 pregnancies and may be prevented in about 70% of cases with avoidance of folic acid deficiency. Because it’s so important, nearly all prenatal vitamins contain folic acid, but many expectant mothers take an extra folic acid supplement alongside their prenatal vitamins.
While it’s important to ensure your prenatal vitamins contain at least 400 mcg of folic acid, the additional supplement is almost certainly an unnecessary expense, unless you are at high risk for spina bifida (for those with a family history or seizure disorders).
Fortunately, it’s incredibly difficult to have a folic acid deficiency in the United States. Not only is folic acid plentiful in many fruits and vegetables, it has also become a common additive in wheat and grain products, like flour and bread. Even if your usual diet is not very well balanced, it’s unlikely to be so nutrient-deprived that you will have a folic acid deficiency. If you’re worried, a prenatal vitamin with folic acid should ease your mind. Also, your baby’s spine closes at 6 weeks from your last menstrual period, so folic acid is irrelevant for preventing spina bifida after the early first trimester.
3. Prenatal vitamins are for you – not the baby
This is possibly the most common misconception about prenatal vitamins. As a previous post discussed, the growing baby will draw calcium, iron, and all other necessary vitamins and minerals from the mom-to-be. Even in circumstances where a mother has vitamin deficiencies, biology ensures that a fetus will be fully maintained, even at mom’s expense.
Instead of providing nutrients directly for the baby, prenatal vitamins restore lost nutrients to the pregnant mother. This helps ensure that she has enough remaining for herself after the baby has taken what it needs.
Pregnancy should be as safe as possible for both mother and child, and prenatal vitamins are an important part of that safety net. If you’re unsure which prenatal vitamin is best for your pregnancy, your doctor may be able to suggest a reliable brand.
Always speak with your doctor if you have any questions or concerns. No pregnancy is perfect, but I hope your pregnancy is the very best it can be.
Be safe, be well and have fun!
David L. Berry, M.D.
Founder and Staff Physician
Austin Perinatal Associates