Prenatal vitamins aren’t only for use during pregnancy — they’re also important to begin even before baby is settled comfortably in your belly. However, knowing when to begin taking them can be confusing. So if you’re feeling a little overwhelmed with all the dos and don’ts of pregnancy planning, we’ve got you covered. 

Why are prenatal vitamins important?

Prenatal vitamins are packed with nutrients like folic acid, calcium, and iron — the same nutrients babies rely on getting from their mothers. Once you find out you’re pregnant, your doctor will recommend you start taking them if you haven’t already. Prenatal vitamins are continued after the baby is born if you are breastfeeding.

When should I start taking prenatal vitamins?

The two best reasons to take prenatal vitamins are if you’re trying to get pregnant, and soon as you find out you are pregnant. And it doesn’t hurt to take them if you’re kinda-sorta-trying or not-not-trying, too. 

Before you get that positive pregnancy test, taking a daily prenatal vitamin can increase the amount of those nutrients in your body. “Certain nutrients are critical for early fetal development, and it's important for those nutrients to build up in the maternal cells so that the early fetus can extract those nutrients even before the mother knows she is pregnant,” says Reproductive Endocrinologist and Infertility Specialist Dr. Sandy Goodman of The Reproductive Medicine Group.

The lack of certain nutrients, Dr. Goodman explains, “can have adverse effects on egg development, and possibly even the early division and implantation of the embryo in addition to the baby’s growth and development.”

As for how soon to start, Dr. Goodman suggests beginning with prenatal vitamins when you're actively trying to get pregnant, ideally around three months before you start trying.

If you’re not quite sure what you’re doing when it comes to baby-making, taking a daily multivitamin with folic acid is a great way to give your body the nutrients it needs to support the early stages of pregnancy for when that time comes. 

Key nutrients in prenatal vitamins

Each of the key elements found in prenatal vitamins serves a different purpose. Most contain extra folic acid, which is critical in preventing brain and spinal cord abnormalities in babies. Dr. Goodman also recommends finding a prenatal vitamin with 600-1,000 micrograms of folate. 

Calcium is essential for baby’s bone and nervous system development. Vitamin D aids in calcium absorption. And omega-3 fatty acids are crucial for supporting baby’s brain and eye development.

Additionally, iron supports the placenta and baby’s development and prevents anemia for both of you. However, the iron content in prenatal vitamins can lead to side effects like constipation. So the amount and type of iron are important, especially for women struggling with anemia or who have difficulty tolerating iron, says Goodman.

Iodine, another beneficial nutrient in most prenatal vitamins, is critical for baby’s brain and nervous system development. 

If you’re concerned about which nutrients to look for or the potential side effects of prenatal vitamins, consult with your medical provider.

Do I still need to take a prenatal vitamin if I eat a healthy diet?

A healthy diet is not only beneficial for a healthy pregnancy, it’s crucial for your overall wellness. But a healthy diet shouldn’t be a replacement for prenatal vitamins. Although your food provides many vital benefits, prenatal vitamins fill any gaps where you may be lacking. And it’s always better to be overprepared, right?  

Prenatal vitamins vs. multivitamins

Prenatal vitamins are formulated with the needs of pregnant women in mind, so they typically have higher levels of certain nutrients like folic acid and iron. But that doesn’t mean you can substitute a prenatal vitamin by doubling up on your regular daily vitamins. 

“Vitamins contain both water-soluble and fat-soluble nutrients and doubling up on a regular vitamin could result in excessive amounts of fat-soluble vitamins, leading to toxicity,” says Dr. Goodman.

Is it safe to take prenatal vitamins if I'm not pregnant?

Be the expert in you.

Take the Quiz

It's safe to take prenatal vitamins even if you're not pregnant, especially if you're planning to conceive in the near future. Still, it's best to consult your healthcare provider to ensure you're taking the correct dosage and proper nutrients specific to your needs. Getting too much of certain nutrients can put you at risk for health problems.

If pregnancy isn’t on your radar, there's no need to take a prenatal vitamin just yet. Instead, focus on getting those crucial nutrients like iron and folate from the foods you eat. 

You may have heard about taking prenatal vitamins to enhance your skin, hair, and nail health. Well, don’t believe everything you hear. There’s no scientific evidence supporting its effectiveness in enhancing these aspects for healthy people. So, start the conversation with your medical provider if you want to give those a boost.

Does brand matter when it comes to prenatal vitamins?

Prenatal vitamins are available at any pharmacy and you don’t need a prescription. However, your healthcare provider may recommend a specific brand depending on your individual needs. 

Various forms of prenatal vitamins are available, including gummies, capsules, tablets, and liquids. Try taking your vitamin at night if nausea is a concern, or as a chewable if you have trouble swallowing pills, advises Dr. Goodman.

Making healthy choices before you get pregnant is just as important as when you’re expecting. It sets the stage for a healthy journey through motherhood and life ahead. So if you’re considering pregnancy any time soon, taking a prenatal vitamin is a great idea. 

Remember, if you have any questions, your healthcare provider should be your go-to resource for personalized advice — they know you best and can guide you through this exciting time. Best of luck! 

Blair Sharp is a freelance writer who lives in Minnesota with her husband and son. Her words have been published in various publications, including Parents, SheKnows, The Bump, and Insider. Find her writing daily on LinkedIn and check out her weekly newsletter, Hey Freelancer! Head to her website for more.