6 Tips for Choosing Prenatal Vitamins
Tips for Choosing Prenatal Vitamins

by Marisa Belger

Most doctors now let their patients choose an over-the-counter prenatal vitamin. Find out what to look for

Pregnancy is a time of great joy -- and many choices.

From the moment a mom-to-be discovers the good news, she's faced with a number of big decisions: Who will deliver the baby? Will she undergo prenatal testing? Will the nursery be painted pink or blue or gender-neutral yellow? And though it may seem small, one of the most important decisions pregnant women make is choosing prenatal vitamins to assist from conception to birth -- and beyond.

These days, choosing a prenatal vitamin can be quite overwhelming. A visit to the vitamin aisle of a health food store or pharmacy presents seemingly endless options: liquid vitamins, chewable vitamins, one-a-day vitamins. There are vitamins high in iron and folic acid, and vitamins that are entirely food-based. Choosing the prenatal vitamin that's right for you and your baby can be downright daunting -- unless you know what to look for.

This is where registered dietician Theresa O'Reilly comes in. Owner and co-founder of the New Jersey Center for Nutrition and Dietetics, O'Reilly often works with pregnant women and knows how difficult this choice can be. "So many of the women I see take an over-the-counter supplement without really having any idea about what they're selecting -- from prenatals with questionable herbal ingredients to ones that have way too many vitamins and/or minerals," says O'Reilly. "And the fact that the FDA doesn't regulate the supplement industry only makes it more worrisome."

To help pregnant women navigate the expanse of choices they'll face in the vitamin aisle, O'Reilly offers this cheat sheet for choosing the right prenatal vitamin:

Tip No. 1: Choose the right dose

Look for prenatal vitamins that include at least 600 mcg of folic acid and 27 mg of iron. "To prevent toxicity, it's important to stay away from high doses of any vitamin or mineral," explains O'Reilly. "It's a good idea to bring your over-the-counter prenatal to your OB/GYN or to a dietician so he or she can confirm its safety and efficacy." And since prenatal vitamins generally contain only 20 to 30 percent of a pregnant woman's calcium needs, O'Reilly recommends moms-to-be eat at least three servings of calcium-rich foods a day.

Tip No. 2: Look for DHA

Most prenatal vitamins now incorporate DHA (a type of omega-3 fatty acid needed for fetal brain development). If yours does not include DHA, ask your doctor if you should take an additional DHA supplement.

Tip No. 3: Be wary of herbs

Herbal supplements are not well studied in pregnancy/pre-pregnancy, so their safety is not confirmed. And some smaller-brand prenatal vitamins contain questionable herbal ingredients. "Take a peek at the ingredient list and make sure it's OK'd by your doctor first," says O'Reilly. "And always get doctor approval before taking any additional herbal or over-the-counter supplement.

Tip No. 4: Review the brand

Since the supplement industry as a whole isn't regulated by the FDA, a good practice is to stick to the bigger supplement companies, as they are generally more "watched" than some smaller, less-known brands.

Tip No. 5: Check the serving size

Many prenatal vitamins -- both regular and chewable -- require taking more than one tablet at a time to meet the recommended serving. Always check the serving size at the top of the nutrition label.

Tip No. 6: Eat well

Taking a prenatal vitamin isn't an excuse to skimp on healthy eating. Eating right is always the foundation for a healthy pregnancy. And your prenatal vitamin is there to ensure you fully meet your nutritional needs.

"And finally, don't be afraid to ask questions and always show your doctor your prenatal prior to use," says O'Reilly. Having all the information and peace of mind about your choice makes any pill easier to swallow.

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Women's Health: Tips for Choosing Prenatal Vitamins