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What are prenatal vitamins?
Prenatal vitamins are multivitamins for pregnant women or women who are trying to get pregnant. Compared to a regular multivitamin, they have more of some nutrients that you need during pregnancy. Your health care provider may prescribe a prenatal vitamin for you, or you can buy them over the counter without a prescription. Take a prenatal vitamin every day during pregnancy. If you’re planning to get pregnant, start taking prenatal vitamins before you get pregnant.
Your body uses vitamins, minerals and other nutrients in food to strong and healthy. During pregnancy, your growing baby gets all necessary nutrients from you. So you may need more during pregnancy than you did before. If you’re pregnant with multiples (twins, triplets or more), you may need more nutrients than if you’re pregnant with one baby. Your prenatal vitamin contains the right amount of nutrients you need during pregnancy.
If you’re a vegetarian, have food allergies or can’t eat certain foods, your provider may want you to take a supplement to help you get more of certain nutrients. A supplement is a product you take to make up for certain nutrients that you don’t get enough of in foods you eat. For example, your provider may recommend that you take a vitamin supplement to help you get more vitamin D, iron or calcium.
Which nutrients are most important during pregnancy?
All nutrients are important, but these six play a key role in your baby’s growth and development during pregnancy:
- Folic acid
- Vitamin D
What is folic acid?
Folic acid is a B vitamin that every cell in your body needs for healthy growth and development. Taking folic acid before and during early pregnancy can help prevent birth defects of the brain and spine called neural tube defects (also called NTDs). Some studies show that taking folic acid may help prevent heart defects and birth defects in your baby’s mouth (called cleft lip and palate).
- Before pregnancy take a vitamin supplement with 400 mcg of folic acid every day.
- Take a vitamin supplement with 400 mcg of folic acid each day, even if you’re not trying to get pregnant.
- During pregnancy, take a prenatal vitamin each day that has 600 mcg of folic acid in it.
Check the product label to see how much folic acid is in it.
If you’re at high risk for having a baby with an NTD, talk to your provider about how you can safely take 4,000 mcg of folic acid each day to help prevent an NTD. Start taking 4,000 mcg at least 3 months before you get pregnant and through the first 12 weeks of pregnancy. You’re at high risk if:
- You’ve had a pregnancy with an NTD in the past.
- You or your partner has an NTD.
- Your partner has a child with an NTD.
Don’t take several multivitamins or prenatal vitamins. You can get too much of other nutrients, which may be harmful to your health. Your provider can help you figure out the best and safest way for you to get the right amount of folic acid.
You can also get folic acid from food. Citrus fruits, green leafy vegetables and beans are all excellent sources of folic acid. Some foods are also enriched with folic acid, such as cereals, bread, rice and pasta.
What is iron?
Iron is a mineral. Your body uses iron to make hemoglobin, a protein that helps carry oxygen from your lungs to the rest of your body. You need twice as much iron during pregnancy than you did before pregnancy. Your body needs this iron to make more blood so it can carry oxygen to your baby. Your baby needs iron to make his own blood.
During pregnancy, you need 27 milligrams of iron each day. Most prenatal vitamins have this amount. You also can get iron from food. Good sources of iron include:
- Lean meat, poultry and seafood
- Cereal, bread and pasta that has iron added to it (check the package label)
- Leafy green vegetables
- Beans, nuts, raisins and dried fruit
Foods containing vitamin C can increase the amount of iron your body absorbs. It’s a good idea to eat foods like orange juice, tomatoes, strawberries and grapefruit every day.
Calcium (in dairy products like milk) and coffee, tea, egg yolks, fiber and soybeans can block your body from absorbing iron. Try to avoid these when eating iron-rich foods.
If you don’t get enough iron during pregnancy, you may be more likely to experience:
- Anemia. This means you have too little iron in your blood.
- Fatigue. This means you feel really tired or exhausted.
- Premature birth. This means your baby is born too soon, before 37 weeks of pregnancy.
- Low birthweight. This means your baby is born weighing less than 5 pounds, 8 ounces.
What is calcium?
Calcium is a mineral that helps your baby’s bones, teeth, heart, muscles and nerves develop. During pregnancy, you need 1,000 milligrams of calcium each day. You can get this amount by taking your prenatal vitamin and eating food that has a lot of calcium in it. Good sources of calcium include:
- Milk, cheese and yogurt
- Broccoli and kale
- Orange juice that has calcium added to it (check the package label)
If you don’t get enough calcium during pregnancy, your body takes it from your bones and gives it to your baby. This can cause health conditions, such as osteoporosis, later in life. Osteoporosis causes your bones become thin and break easily.
What is vitamin D?
Vitamin D helps your body absorb calcium. It also helps your body’s nerves, muscles and immune system work. Your immune system protects your body from infection. Vitamin D helps your baby’s bones and teeth grow.
During pregnancy, you need 600 IU (international units) of vitamin D each day. You can get this amount from food or your prenatal vitamin. Good sources of vitamin D include:
- Fatty fish, like salmon
- Milk and cereal that has vitamin D added to it (check the package label)
What is DHA?
Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) is a kind of fat (called omega-3 fatty acid) that helps with growth and development. During pregnancy, you need DHA to help your baby’s brain and eyes develop. Not all prenatal vitamins contain DHA, so ask your provider if you need to take a DHA supplement.
During pregnancy, it is recommended that women eat 8 to 12 ounces of seafood low in mercury each week. Good sources of DHA include:
- Herring, salmon, trout, anchovies, halibut, catfish, shrimp and tilapia
- Orange juice, milk and eggs that have DHA added to them (check the package label)
What is iodine?
Iodine is a mineral your body needs to make thyroid hormones, which help your body use and store energy from food. You need iodine during pregnancy to help your baby’s nervous system develop. The nervous system (brain, spinal cord and nerves) helps your baby move, think and feel.
During pregnancy, you need 220 micrograms of iodine every day. Not all prenatal vitamins contain iodine, so make sure you eat foods that have iodine in them. Ask your provider if you need to take an iodine supplement.
Good sources of iodine include:
- Milk, cheese and yogurt
- Enriched or fortified cereal and bread (check the package label)
- Iodized salt (salt with iodine added to it; check the package label)
Last reviewed September, 2020