Having a Baby? A Guide to Prenatal Vitamins For Women & Men

Starting a family is one of the big decisions in life. Raising a child requires huge emotional and financial investment. Why not start things off on the right foot by making sure your baby receives all the nutrients it would need from conception to birth? This guide will explain what prenatal vitamins and supplements, as well as preconception vitamins and supplements, are recommended before and during pregnancy. Don’t worry dads-to-be, there’s something here for you too.

Are supplements for prenatal vitamins and fertility supplements necessary?

The fact that the human race has come this is evidence that diet may be sufficient to acquire all the nutrients necessary to have a safe and successful pregnancy. But more often than not, couples will benefit from supplements for prenatal vitamins, and even fertility supplements for preconception vitamins. Diet isn’t perfect and neither are supplements, but supplements can help one to get closer to an ideal mix of nutrients.

Why trying to eat well may not be enough

Most people don’t manage a consistently well-balanced diet under the easiest of circumstances, and pregnancy is a challenge. Are you sure you can meet your recommended intake of DHA from seafood alone? What happens when morning sickness kicks in and your love for seafood linguini becomes somewhat challenged?

Getting into the habit of taking supplements isn’t that easy for some people who don’t already have a regular supplements regimen, which is why putting it off until you absolutely have to is not a recommended strategy. Compounding this issue is the fact that building up supplies of certain nutrients in your body can take some time.

So, be kind to yourself and at least consider taking supplements early in your journey to have a baby. You should always check with your doctor for advice on your specific situation, but the information below will at least equip you with the knowledge to ask the right questions.

Do vegans or vegetarians need prenatal vitamins?

Prenatal vitamins are especially important for women who are on a vegan or vegetarian diet. This is because while a vegan diet has health benefits, there are specific vitamin deficiencies that are undesirable for pregnancy. Most prenatal vitamins on the market do include animal-derived products, but fortunately there are vegan alternatives available as well.

Choosing vegan prenatal vitamins ≫

What are preconception vitamins?

Preconception vitamins and fertility supplements encourage conception, and may make it easier to become pregnant in the first place. Furthermore, in some cases it’s recommended to start prenatal vitamins prior to conception as well, to ensure that there’s a good amount in the body as soon as the embryo starts to develop. Note that for couples who are struggling to conceive after trying for some time, in addition to taking preconception vitamins, it’s a good idea to seek medical advice because there may be some situations which preconception vitamins cannot help with.

What are prenatal vitamins?

Prenatal vitamins provide the nutrients that soon-to-be-mom needs ensure her baby’s health inside the womb. Folic acid is the most well-known of these, but there are more, which will be covered below.

Can men take prenatal/preconception vitamins?

A third of infertility cases are caused by a man’s reproductive health issues such as low sperm count, low sperm quality, and immotile sperm cells. [11] Fertility supplements can help, so it’s a good idea for men to take supplements when trying to conceive a baby.

Preconception

Planning to have a family involves more than just doing the deed and a 9-month wait. f you want to do everything you can to make sure everything goes as smoothly as possible leading to a healthy baby (or babies!), you have to consider factors that are not just critical during pregnancy, but also during preconception.

For many women, it goes without saying that you can become pregnant and deliver even without the aid of preconception vitamins. Being a healthy male and female is often more than enough to conceive a baby, but statistics show that around 6% of married couples fail to get pregnant, and 12% of women have difficulty carrying pregnancy to term. [1] In this regard, it wouldn’t hurt to increase your chances of actually getting pregnant and giving birth to a healthy baby with the help of prenatal vitamins and other fertility supplements.

Preconception supplements for women

Before conceiving, there are certain vitamins a woman needs to make her body a comfortable place for a baby to implant and then grow for nine whole months. The nutritional status of the woman prior to and during pregnancy is critical for fetal growth and development. If the woman is nutritionally deficient, it increases the risk for adverse pregnancy outcomes such as stillbirths, neonatal deaths, low birth weight, and preterm births. [2]

The baby gets all its nutrition from mom, so it’s mom’s job to make sure both she and the baby get enough. Below are some of the prenatal vitamins women need to take before pregnancy.

  • Folic acid: Folic acid is one of the most important vitamins for women. Folic acid as a typical supplement is used to combat folate deficiency, particularly to prevent anemia. [3]

    • Women who plan on getting pregnant should include 400 mcg folic acid per day as a fertility supplement. It should be taken at least one month before conception to help reduce the risk of major birth defects of the baby’s brain and spine e.g. anencephaly and spina bifida. [4]
  • Iron: The most common micronutrient deficiency during pregnancy is iron deficiency. Iron deficiency leads to maternal anemia which has been associated with adverse pregnancy outcomes. [5] This makes iron supplementation just as important as folic acid supplementation.

    • Iron lays the foundation for the baby’s cell growth. It also supports the baby’s oxygen and nutrient transport mechanism.
  • DHA: Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) is a type of Omega-3 and is the most abundant fatty acid in our brain. Anchovies, mackerel, salmon, herring are rich sources of DHA.

    • As pregnancy depletes DHA levels, women should allow up to six months supplementation before conceiving to prevent deficiencies and to provide enough DHA for the baby. [6]
Our top pick for preconception DHA
  • Vitamin C: Aside from increasing immunity to common diseases, vitamin C also enhances iron absorption. [7]

  • Calcium: Most women take calcium supplements to prevent osteoporosis, but during preconception it also helps prevent heartburn and preeclampsia. [8]

  • Vitamin D: The sun is a free source of vitamin D, but adequate and safe sunlight exposure is a luxury that most of us do not have, so vitamin D supplementation is a good idea for most people, and recommended for pregnancy.

    • Studies show that women deficient in vitamin D risk congenital heart defects in babies. [9]
  • Vitamin B6: Low B6 levels is associated with increased risk of preterm birth and early pregnancy loss. [10] Since many pregnancies are unplanned, it’s a good idea for women to maintain adequate levels of B6 throughout their reproductive years.

Preconception and fertility supplements for men

A third of infertility cases are caused by male reproductive health issues to do with sperm count, quality, and motility. [11] Testosterone levels often dictate sperm count and quality. Low testosterone leads to low sperm count. It is therefore important to take fertility supplements that help a man’s body produce more testosterone which leads to high quality sperm.

  • Zinc: Zinc is lauded as a man’s mineral. Studies show Zinc’s capability to not just increase testosterone levels in testosterone-deficient men, but also help reverse hypogonadism, a condition that results to testosterone deficiency.

    • In the study, it was found that Zinc was able to reverse testosterone deficiency in men, resulting in a 41% increase in testosterone levels. [12] This study, conducted on men above 50 with low testosterone, points to the ability of zinc to boost testosterone production, which in turn improves fertility.
  • Selenium: Selenium is a mineral that is available in a variety of foods. Seafoods are especially rich in selenium. But given that selenium has a critical role in reproduction and thyroid hormone metabolism,having just a bit more is helpful when trying to conceive. Selenium deficiency is linked to male infertility. [13]

  • Vitamin E: Just like Selenium, vitamin E deficiency is linked to male infertility [13], so supplementation is a good idea.

  • Gingko Biloba: More than just a memory nutrient, ginkgo has been proven to provide blood flow benefits which may help with male erections. [14]

  • Saw Palmetto: An herb that has been shown to help improve prostate and urinary tract health. It also regulates testosterone levels and even ward off hair loss. [15]

Preconception and fertility lifestyle hacks for men

The following aren’t related to supplements, but are some simple lifestyle tweaks that men can do to improve fertility.

Keep the testicles cool!

As funny as this sounds, improving male fertility can sometimes mean keeping your testicles cool, or at least avoiding irregular spikes in temperature. Heat from saunas, hot tubs, hot showers, electric blankets, heating pads, and even tight clothing can cause a man’s testicles to become too warm for your sperm cells’ comfort. [16]

We concluded that transient scrotal hyperthermia seriously, but reversibly, negatively affected the spermatogenesis, oxidative stress may be involved in this process. In addition, intermittent heat exposure more seriously suppresses the spermatogenesis compared to consecutive heat exposure.” - Rao et al. [16]

Minimise cycling

Avoiding cycling is also due to the same principle of heat, but the addition of rapid and repetitive movements may also cause testicular injury. A 2015 study involving bicycle-taxi cyclists showed that men who used bicycles for prolonged periods had lower semen volume, total motility, progressive motility, and semen concentration as well as a prevalence of abnormally shaped sperm cells. [17]

During pregnancy

A positive pregnancy test can be the happiest - and scariest - experience for many people. The time between conceiving and giving birth is generally a nine-month gap, but the time will fly by. Caring for the baby starts on the very first day of pregnancy. Prenatal vitamins are strongly recommended during pregnancy. Below are some of the prenatal vitamins mom needs to take during pregnancy.

Prenatal vitamins for mom-to-be

Almost everything recommended in this phase is actually also recommended during preconception, though potentially for slightly different reasons. This is very helpful, since a woman can get into the habit of taking the required supplements before becoming pregnant - when things can start to get hectic!

If these supplements were not commenced before pregnancy it is all the more important to start taking them as soon as a pregnancy is known. Everything here is helpful, but they are ordered from most important to optional but still recommended.

  • Folic Acid - continued from preconception: It supports brain development and more importantly, prevents neural tube defects. The CDC recommends at least 0.4 mg or 400 mcg folic acid daily. [18]

  • Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) - continued from preconception: Research links adequate DHA intake during pregnancy to reduced risk of preterm labor and postpartum depression. [19, 20] Consensus guidelines recommend at least 200 mg per day for healthy brain development in the womb. [21]

Higher concentrations of DHA in mothers’ milk and greater seafood consumption both predicted lower prevalence rates of postpartum depression in simple and logarithmic models, respectively.” - Hibeln JR [19]

Our top pick for prenatal DHA
  • Iron - continued from preconception: Expecting moms need fifty percent more blood than normal. [22] Iron functions as a producer of hemoglobin in the body and hemoglobin is a primary component of red-blood cells. This makes iron a critical supplement during pregnancy. More than adequate blood supply, iron also improves symptoms of anemia and helps maintain the immune system.

  • Vitamin C - continued from preconception: Vitamin C increases iron absorption and also helps rebuild tissues and repair brittle bones that possibly weakened or depreciated during fetal growth.

  • Ginger: Not exactly a vitamin, but it does help relieve nausea and vomiting - the dreaded morning sickness. Making a conscious effort to include more ginger in diet (for example by regularly taking ginger tea) may be an effective alternative to taking a ginger supplement.

A daily total of 1000 mg of ginger in a capsule preparation can be suggested by care providers as a means of decreasing pregnancy nausea and vomiting in women who tend to herbal medicines.” - Ozgoli, Goli, and Simbar [23]

  • Vitamin B6 - continued from preconception: Much like ginger, Vitamin B6 provides relief from vomiting and nausea especially during the first few days of pregnancy. [24]

What about dad-to-be?

Once mom-to-be is pregnant, the partner’s responsibilities are now geared towards trying to be as useful as possible. A man with man flu is useless, so this is a crucial time for dad to remain as fit and healthy as possible. Mom can’t be caught taking care of both the baby and the father as it will not only tire her out, but also put undue stress on the baby.

At this stage, partners should focus on being generally healthy and being ready for any of mom’s needs. Not to mention, getting ready for the arrival of the baby!

Prenatal/preconception vitamins summary tables

We covered a lot of information above, so let’s recap everything. Note that specific dosages vary with the individual’s circumstances. Various factors come into play: everything from diet to body size. Therefore it can be difficult to provide general advice on quantities. When in doubt, do check with your doctor.

Prenatal/preconception vitamins summary for women

What? How much per day? When to start?
Folic acid 400 micrograms (mcg) At least one month before conceiving
Iron 30 miligrams (mg), but potentially more if your doctor finds that you are deficient Preferably before conceiving, but definitely once pregnant
Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) 300 miligrams (mg) Preferably 6 months before conceiving, but definitely once pregnant
Calcium 1200 miligrams (mg) Preferably before pregnancy; starting with 1000 mg would be okay, but increase to 1200 mg once pregnant
Vitamin D Approximately 3000 International Units (IU) Preferably before pregnancy, but at least start once pregnant
Vitamin C 1000 mg Most people should be taking Vitamin C supplements all the time anyway! If you usually take a bit less (e.g. 500mg) consider bumping this up to 1000mg once pregnant
Vitamin B6 50mg It’s a good idea to start before pregnancy, but recommended to start once pregnant, and it’s effects may be most noticably beneficial once nausea begins
Ginger To taste/as needed When morning sickness kicks in, try ginger tea once or twice a day

Preconception vitamins summary for men

Men have it easier when it comes to preconception vitamins. There’s less to take, and they all have the same timeline: start as soon as you are trying for a baby, and once your partner is pregnant, just do what you typically do to maintain immunity, energy, and general health - that will be the subject of a future article.

What? How much per day?
Zinc 100 miligrams (mg)
Selenium 200 micrograms (mcg)
Vitamin E 400 miligrams (mg)
Ginkgo Biloba 120 miligrams (mg)
Saw Palmetto 320 miligrams (mg)

General and Lifestyle Tips

Whether or not you choose to take supplements, there are some other things that you should do to make the pregnancy journey better.

Meet with your doctor

Whether you’re planning on conceiving or already pregnant, seeing your physician should always be on the top of your priorities. Your doctor can provide sound advice regarding the best way to get pregnant, but more importantly whether the woman’s body is ready to conceive, bear a child, and eventually give birth.

Regular checkups during pregnancy is also critical in preventing any health issues during pregnancy. You may see your doctor for screening tests as well as ultrasounds to see if everything is going as smoothly as possible.

Between checkups, both partners should maintain a list of questions/concerns that they would like addressed, so that nothing is overlooked.

Check for medicines that may reduce fertility

Certain medications may interfere with you or your partner’s fertility and cause birth defects during pregnancy. These include general drugs and over-the-counter medication as well as some dietary or herbal supplements. If you’re planning a pregnancy and you’re currently taking a drug or some natural health pill, it’s best to consult with your doctor and check whether you can relieve yourself of some of the medicines, as well as check how long you have to wait when it comes to drugs that leave traces of their active compounds.

Dietary supplements, though advertised as “natural” or “organic,” are best not consumed during pregnancy unless confirmed to be safe. This includes any gym supplements or any herbals you may have been taking prior to getting pregnant.

Modify your diet

Prenatal vitamins as well as other fertility supplements, if taken as advised by professionals, all contribute to a better pregnancy outcome. However, supplements are not meant to be the main source of nutrition for both mom and baby. When it comes to nutritional intake, nothing can replace a healthy diet consisting of good old fashioned vegetables and some fruits.

Maintaining a healthy weight also contributes to better birth outcomes, especially as studies show being overweight or underweight increases the risk for many complications during pregnancy. [25]

Try a supplements reminder app

Deciding to take prenatal supplements may be easy, but for some people at least, sticking to it can be hard. This is especially true for people who are not already in the habit of taking supplements.

A supplements reminder app may be able to help with this. There are many freely available medication remidner apps, though the majority are designed primarily with prescription medications in mind. For an experience optimised for supplements, try our very own Intrepid Pillbox.

Avoid alcohol and cigarettes

Drinking alcohol and smoking can contribute to infertility before pregnancy and serious health problems during pregnancy such as premature birth, birth defects, and even infant death. [26]

Sleep more

Sleep helps anyone to feel relieved from stress. A pregnant woman is a stressed woman and excessive stress can contribute to complications during pregnancy. Getting enough sleep, especially in the later stages can also help with length of labor, type of delivery, and reduce the risks of depression and anxiety. [27, 28]

With reflux and morning sickness (which really strikes at any time), getting sleep is easier said than done, but it is important. Severe sleep disruption has been shown to increase the length of labor and also the likelihood of caesarean deliveries by 5 times. [28] The key is to get a combined total of 8 hours sleep whenever you can - so whenever you can, get some sleep!

References

Here at Intrepid Wellbeing we prefer to source information from high quality, academically rigorous sources. These are the references we used to develop this article:

  1. Cdc.gov. (2018). Infertility | Reproductive Health | CDC. (online - accessed 21 Jun. 2018)
  2. Dean SV, Lassi ZS, Imam AM, Bhutta ZA. Preconception care: promoting reproductive planning. Reproductive Health. 2014;11(Suppl 3):S2. doi:10.11861742-4755-11-S3-S2
  3. Haidar J. Prevalence of Anaemia, Deficiencies of Iron and Folic Acid and Their Determinants in Ethiopian Women. Journal of Health, Population, and Nutrition. 2010;28(4):359-368
  4. Erickson, J.D. (2002). Folic acid and prevention of spina bifida and anencephaly. 10 years after the U.S. Public Health Service recommendation. MMWR. Recommendations and reports : Morbidity and mortality weekly report. Recommendations and reports, 51 RR-13, 1-3
  5. Lubach GR, Coe CL. Preconception maternal iron status is a risk factor for iron deficiency in infant rhesus monkeys (Macaca mulatta). J Nutr. 2006;136(9):2345-9
  6. Markhus MW, Rasinger JD, Malde MK, et al. Docosahexaenoic Acid Status in Pregnancy Determines the Maternal Docosahexaenoic Acid Status 3-, 6- and 12 Months Postpartum. Results from a Longitudinal Observational Study. Orešic M, ed. PLoS ONE. 2015;10(9):e0136409. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0136409
  7. Teucher B, Olivares M, Cori H. Enhancers of iron absorption: ascorbic acid and other organic acids. Int J Vitam Nutr Res. 2004;74(6):403-19
  8. Hofmeyr GJ, Roodt A, Atallah AN, Duley L. Calcium supplementation to prevent pre-eclampsia–a systematic review. S Afr Med J. 2003;93(3):224-8
  9. Koster MPH, Van duijn L, Krul-poel YHM, et al. A compromised maternal vitamin D status is associated with congenital heart defects in offspring. Early Hum Dev. 2018;117:50-56
  10. Ho C, Quay TAW, Devlin AM, Lamers Y. Prevalence and Predictors of Low Vitamin B6 Status in Healthy Young Adult Women in Metro Vancouver. Nutrients. 2016;8(9):538. doi:10.3390/nu8090538
  11. Kumar N, Singh AK. Trends of male factor infertility, an important cause of infertility: A review of literature. Journal of Human Reproductive Sciences. 2015;8(4):191-196. doi:10.41030974-1208.170370
  12. Prasad AS, Mantzoros CS, Beck FW, Hess JW, Brewer GJ. Zinc status and serum testosterone levels of healthy adults. Nutrition. 1996;12(5):344-8
  13. Moslemi MK, Tavanbakhsh S. Selenium–vitamin E supplementation in infertile men: effects on semen parameters and pregnancy rate. International Journal of General Medicine. 2011;4:99-104. doi:10.2147/IJGM.S16275
  14. Wu YN, Liao CH, Chen KC, Liu SP, Chiang HS. Effect of Ginkgo biloba Extract (EGb-761) on Recovery of Erectile Dysfunction in Bilateral Cavernous Nerve Injury Rat Model. Urology. 2015;85(5):1214.e7-15
  15. Prager N, Bickett K, French N, Marcovici G. A randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial to determine the effectiveness of botanically derived inhibitors of 5-alpha-reductase in the treatment of androgenetic alopecia. J Altern Complement Med. 2002;8(2):143-52
  16. Rao M, Zhao X-L, Yang J, et al. Effect of transient scrotal hyperthermia on sperm parameters, seminal plasma biochemical markers, and oxidative stress in men. Asian Journal of Andrology. 2015;17(4):668-675. doi:10.41031008-682X.146967
  17. Kipandula W, Lampiao F. Semen profiles of young men involved as bicycle taxi cyclists in Mangochi District, Malawi: A case-control study. Malawi Medical Journal. 2015;27(4):151-153
  18. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2018). Recommendations | Folic Acid | NCBDDD | CDC. (online - accessed 23 Jun. 2018)
  19. Hibbeln JR. Seafood consumption, the DHA content of mothers’ milk and prevalence rates of postpartum depression: a cross-national, ecological analysis. J Affect Disord. 2002;69(1-3):15-29
  20. Sontrop J, Avison WR, Evers SE, Speechley KN, Campbell MK. Depressive symptoms during pregnancy in relation to fish consumption and intake of n-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids. Paediatr Perinat Epidemiol. 2008;22(4):389-99
  21. Koletzko B, Lien E, Agostoni C, et al. The roles of long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids in pregnancy, lactation and infancy: review of current knowledge and consensus recommendations. J Perinat Med. 2008;36(1):5-14
  22. Soma-Pillay P, Catherine N-P, Tolppanen H, Mebazaa A, Tolppanen H, Mebazaa A. Physiological changes in pregnancy. Cardiovascular Journal of Africa. 2016;27(2):89-94. doi:10.5830/CVJA-2016-021
  23. Ozgoli G, Goli M, Simbar M. Effects of ginger capsules on pregnancy, nausea, and vomiting. J Altern Complement Med. 2009;15(3):243-6
  24. Babaei AH, Foghaha MH. A randomized comparison of vitamin B6 and dimenhydrinate in the treatment of nausea and vomiting in early pregnancy. Iranian Journal of Nursing and Midwifery Research. 2014;19(2):199-202
  25. Moos MK, Dunlop AL, Jack BW, et al. Healthier women, healthier reproductive outcomes: recommendations for the routine care of all women of reproductive age. Am J Obstet Gynecol. 2008;199(6 Suppl 2):S280-9
  26. Shah T, Sullivan K, Carter J. Sudden Infant Death Syndrome and Reported Maternal Smoking During Pregnancy. American Journal of Public Health. 2006;96(10):1757-1759. doi:10.2105/AJPH.2005.073213
  27. Polo-kantola P, Aukia L, Karlsson H, Karlsson L, Paavonen EJ. Sleep quality during pregnancy: associations with depressive and anxiety symptoms. Acta Obstet Gynecol Scand. 2017;96(2):198-206
  28. Lee KA, Gay CL. Sleep in late pregnancy predicts length of labor and type of delivery. Am J Obstet Gynecol. 2004;191(6):2041-6
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