By Anna McLeod, Editorial Intern
Last semester in a class focused on maternal and child health, my professor introduced a recommendation that all women of reproductive age should be taking prenatal vitamins. As a college student, who doesn’t plan on having kids for many, many years, my response was something along the lines of… WTF. I had never heard of anyone besides people that are already pregnant or trying to conceive being advised to take prenatal vitamins. Between annual checkups with my OB/GYN and my extensive following of reproductive wellness influencers, I thought I was pretty well versed in the field of reproductive health. As a 20-something year old and a public health girly, how had I never heard of this recommendation before?
The Critical Period Model
The critical period model investigates how early life exposures affect health and development at later stages. Prenatal development is considered a critical period because environmental factors can have significant effects on future health. Considering that crucial phases of development may occur before an individual even knows that they are pregnant, proactively taking prenatal vitamins can ensure that a developing fetus has all of the necessary nutrients, even in the case of unplanned pregnancy.
Why take prenatal vitamins?
Prenatal vitamins have several significant benefits including helping prevent birth defects, promoting healthy fetal development, and supporting the mother’s health throughout pregnancy. Prenatal vitamins can also reduce the risk of preterm birth and low birth weight.
The Perfect Prenatal Concoction
While each brand varies slightly, these essential nutrients are included in the majority of prenatal vitamins:
- Folic acid: crucial for neural tube development (which occurs in the first month of pregnancy) and helps prevent major birth defects.
- Iron: important in the production of red blood cells which provide oxygen to the baby.
- Calcium and Vitamin D: important for the development of the baby’s teeth and bones.
- Choline: important for membrane and tissue growth.
- Vitamin B6: helps with brain and nervous system development.
- Vitamin B12: helps prevent pregnancy complications, developmental abnormalities, and low birth weight.
- Omega-3 fatty acids: foundational for brain and eye development.
Are prenatal vitamins right for me?
Ideally all of these essential nutrients will be obtained through a healthy diet, but prenatal vitamins can help to fill any nutritional gaps. It’s generally recommended that prenatal vitamins are started at least 3 months before conception. Getting a jump start on prenatal vitamins can ensure that a baby has all of its nutrients at every stage of development. If you are trying to conceive or thinking about conceiving in the near future, consider talking with your healthcare provider to see if prenatal vitamins are right for you. Based on these recommendations, I’ve decided to forgo prenatal vitamins and stick with my trusty multivitamin for now.