Being pregnant can be a minefield of do's and don’ts and sometimes it can feel like everyone you come across has an opinion on what you should or shouldn’t be doing with your body.
So, where does this leave you and what vitamins and supplements should, and can, you take during your pregnancy…
Should I take supplements during pregnancy?
Making sure you get the right nutrients is vital for your baby to grow and develop, so it’s important you get the right information. During pregnancy, your baby gets all necessary nutrients from you so, you may need more of some vitamins and minerals during pregnancy than you did before.
The opposite is also true! You may need to cut back on a few supplements and foods to make sure you’re not getting too much of certain vitamins and minerals that may be harmful to your growing baby.
Eating healthy foods is usually enough to ensure your body is getting the right vitamins and minerals, however during pregnancy you may need to increase your daily intake of certain vitamins and minerals, like Folic Acid, Vitamin D and Iron, as these can prevent birth defects, promote healthy growth and ensure you remain healthy in pregnancy too.
Some women prefer to take the guesswork out of choosing pregnancy vitamins by opting for an all-in-one dietary supplement or prenatal vitamins designed for pregnant women. Others choose to be more selective with what dietary supplements they take.
The most important thing is to make sure you know what vitamins and minerals you need to take during pregnancy and what you should avoid so that you can make the best choice for you and your baby.
Essential supplements for pregnant women
Your midwife will be able to give you tailored advice but generally speaking, all pregnant women in the UK should at least take Folic Acid supplements for the first 12 weeks of pregnancy. At this stage your baby’s spine will be fully developed so there is no need to continue taking Folic Acid. Some women, however, choose to continue taking this supplement throughout the duration of their pregnancy, which is fine, as it won’t harm the baby at all. Folic Acid supplements are also recommended for those who are trying to conceive.
In Scotland, where prescriptions are free, Folic Acid will be provided to you by your midwife at your very first appointment. In the rest of the UK, it may be prescribed to you, or you can pick it up at almost all pharmacies with a vitamins section and even on the shelves of your local supermarket.
Why is Folic acid so important?
Folic acid is a form of folate (a B vitamin) that protects your unborn baby against serious birth defects, such as spina bifida - a neural tube defect which affects spinal development. It will help keep you healthy in the run up to and during pregnancy and a fact that’s not known to many – it can help with healthy sperm quality and improves male fertility too.
It’s always good to have a diet high in folate, but as this is such an important pregnancy vitamin, doctors and midwives advise against relying on foods as a substitute for a Folic Acid supplement. The recommended dose for pregnant women is 400 mcg (0.4mg) a day
Some of the best folate-rich foods include:
- Green vegetables - especially dark, leafy ones, such as brussel sprouts, kale, broccoli, and spring greens
Try eating foods fortified with folate. These include:
- Breakfast cereals
- Some pasta
And hot of the press: the government has just announced that all white bread will start to be fortified with Folic Acid too!
Making sure you get enough Iron
During your pregnancy you will be given regular blood tests. One of the reasons for this is to monitor your iron levels. Iron plays a key role in making the haemoglobin in red blood cells which is very important for both you and your baby. Iron helps move oxygen from your lungs to the rest of your body - and your baby’s too!
About 50% of women don’t get enough of this important mineral in pregnancy, which can leave them anaemic, especially after 20 weeks of pregnancy. This is more likely to be the case if you’re a vegetarian or vegan, suffer from severe morning sickness or are carrying multiple babies. Whilst low Iron is something that will most-likely be picked up by your midwife, it’s always best to speak to your midwife or GP if you start to feel extra tired, dizzy or breathless.
It’s recommended that you consume between 27 mg and 45mg of iron a day. For most women, Iron supplementation is safe during pregnancy. However, not every mum-to-be needs extra Iron, especially since the mineral can be found in many foods. As always, talk to your practitioner before adding any new supplements to your diet.
Some of the best iron-rich foods include:
- Fortified breakfast cereals
- White beans
- Spinach, broccoli, or spring greens
- Firm tofu
- Dark chocolate
- Kidney beans, baked beans
- Red meat, oily fish
- Soya products
- Nuts and dried fruit, such as dried apricots
- Wholemeal bread and fortified breakfast cereals
Make sure you eat foods containing Vitamin C as these help you absorb iron. These include:
- Kiwi fruit
- Brussel sprouts
And avoid foods that prevent you from absorbing iron. These include:
- Tea and coffee - including decaf versions
NB: It’s important to limit the amount of caffeine you have in pregnancy anyway – find out more about caffeine in pregnancy.
What other vitamins can I take during pregnancy?
Vitamin D is very important throughout pregnancy and while breastfeeding.
Your body usually gets most of the Vitamin D it needs from sunlight however, in some parts of the UK and in the winter months across the whole country, there’s not enough sunlight to get what you need, so if you’re pregnant during this time, your midwife or GP will probably recommend you take a Vitamin D supplement. This is usually included in most over-the-counter prenatal vitamin supplements.
Also, if you have dark skin or you tend to keep your skin mostly covered in the sun, then you’re more likely to have low levels of Vitamin D.
Whilst you can find Vitamin D in some foods such as oily fish, eggs and red meat (and it’s added to some breakfast cereals, fat spreads and non-diary milk), it’s very hard to get enough Vitamin D from food alone, so the NHS recommend a daily dosage of 10mcg throughout pregnancy.
You can get vitamin supplements containing Vitamin D free of charge if you’re pregnant or breastfeeding and quality for the Healthy Start scheme.
Iodine is one of the most important nutrients that a foetus needs for brain development and physical growth. Whilst our bodies only need the teeny-weeniest amount of it (just 5 grams over the course of a 70-year lifetime!), that little bit of Iodine in our diet is really important – especially during pregnancy.
The best way to make sure you're getting enough Iodine is by eating a healthy pregnancy diet.
Focus on whole foods that are natural sources, including: plain low-fat yoghurt or milk, eggs, tinned tuna, cheddar cheese, dried prunes and apple juice. Another tip is avoid foods with nitrates – such as deli meats and processed foods as these impact your body’s ability to absorb Iodine.
A word of warning here though - you mustn’t consume more than 1,100 mcg of Iodine daily, as this may put you at risk of hypothyroidism and potentially more serious problems. So, while taking a prenatal supplement containing Iodine with 150 mcg is OK, most doctors don't recommend taking a separate Iodine supplement, since most start at 500 mcg.
Vitamins to avoid during pregnancy
During pregnancy you should not take supplements that contain any additional Vitamin A.
You only need a small amount of Vitamin A and you’ll almost certainly be getting enough from the food you eat already. Because Vitamin A is stored in your body, you can end up storing too much, which may be harmful to your baby.
This is why pregnant women are advised to avoid foods which contain extra high levels of Vitamin A, such as liver or food with liver in it (like pâté, haggis or liver sausage) and mackerel.
Speak to your midwife about any concerns
If you’re concerned or are ever unsure about which vitamins and supplements are and aren’t safe to take during your pregnancy, then it’s always a good idea to speak to your midwife or GP, as they’re best placed to give you the most up-to-date advice for you and your baby.