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Do I really need a prenatal vitamin?

What’s the point of prenatal vitamins? Do they really have the ability to impact your baby’s health — both in utero and once they’re out in the real world — or can you skip the multivitamin aisle and simply stock up on more fruit and veggies instead?

Generally speaking, prenatal supplements consist of a variety of vitamins and minerals that can help your baby get the nutrients and vitamins it requires for healthy development.

Of course, at all stages of life, women can benefit from a solid intake of vitamins, minerals and nutrients, but during pregnancy in particular, our daily requirements for certain elements — such as folate, folic acid, calcium and iron — increase.

This is why all women who could become pregnant and those who are pregnant should take a multivitamin containing at least 0.4 milligrams (400 micrograms) of folic acid every day, suggests Health Canada.

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When you’re pregnant, you can meet most of your nutritional needs by eating well according to Canada’s Food Guide. However, your diet alone may not always give you high enough levels of some nutrients. Two nutrients you may need to supplement are folic acid and iron.

Consider taking a prenatal multivitamin before, during and after pregnancy while breastfeeding to ensure that you are getting enough nutrients to support yourself and your baby.

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The main benefit for pregnant women with taking a supplement is that it can fill the gap when their diet is lacking in certain nutrients.

One of the most important nutrients during pregnancy is folate or folic acid, which can help reduce the risk of neural tube defects, such as spina bifida.

According to the Dietitians of Canada website,  if neural tube defects occur, they happen in the first month of pregnancy. This typically occurs before women even realize they are pregnant. That is why it is crucial to consider taking a prenatal vitamin before you even plan to get pregnant.

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It’s important your supplement also contains vitamin B12, the association adds, because high doses of folic acid can serve to hide a vitamin B12 deficiency.

Keep in mind that a supplement doesn’t replace a healthy diet. It is important that pregnant women also choose a healthy diet that includes foods higher in folic acid. Cooked asparagus, cooked spinach, romaine lettuce, kidney beans, chickpeas, lentils and sunflower seeds are some excellent sources of folic acid.

How to decide which prenatal vitamins to take

Avoid taking a mixed bag of several different supplements, unless you’ve been directed to do so by your health care provider. It is possible to “overdose” on a specific nutrient, so it’s not worth taking any risks by guessing what your nutritional needs may be.

Your best bet is to take an easy-to-remember, once-a-day multivitamin that includes a variety of all the nutrients you need in one dose. Centrum’s Prenatal + DHA is one such “all-rounder” that contains essential omega-3 fatty acids, a good dose of folic acid and over two dozen other vitamins and minerals to help ensure that you and your growing baby gets all the nutrients you both need.

Most experts recommend that women who are trying to become pregnant start taking their supplements at least three months before trying to conceive and continue taking them until they’ve finished breastfeeding.

More on pregnancy and baby health

What’s the hype about folic acid and pregnancy?
8 Most common nutritional deficiencies for pregnant moms
A simplified guide to pregnancy

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