The Benefits of Prenatal Vitamins for You & Baby From Start to Finish

There’s a lot of work that goes into prepping your body for a baby, and a little foresight and planning can make a huge difference. We’ll go ahead and assume you already know prenatal vitamins are absolutely non-negotiable (for both parents!) during your pregnancy, and you may be aware that it’s best to start taking them sooner rather than later. But do you know exactly how your prenatal vitamin is helping you all on this wild ride? Read on for a breakdown of all the benefits of prenatal vitamins for you and your baby from preconception to postpartum.

The Benefits of Prenatal Vitamins Before Conception

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Any expert will tell you that one of the most important reasons to take prenatal vitamins is to reduce the risk of birth defects. Of course, not all of them are preventable, but there are specific things couples can do to minimize the risks. One of them is starting a high-quality prenatal vitamin at least six months before you hope to conceive.

The idea here is to optimize your health by getting a steady stream of nutrients all shown to support fertility. And this is applicable to both hopeful parents to be – men benefit in the same way as women from a specialized formula with science-backed ingredients in proven amounts. We know beyond a doubt that the health and nutrition of both parents before conception not only impacts pregnancy outcomes but the lifelong health of their future child, and even into the next generation.

Think of this as foundation work – a daily prenatal vitamin, as part of a generally healthy lifestyle, lays the groundwork for all the heavy lifting to come. For men, supplementing with key nutrients during this preconception window helps improve symptoms of male fertility, like low sperm count and motility, and supports sperm health as a whole. Plus, it gives men a chance to feel involved in the process, which is a nice little side benefit.

For women, taking prenatal vitamins before conception supports fertility in much the same way. Vitamin C, for example, can reduce the risk of miscarriage. Vitamins B6 and B12 build up nutrients that are critical to early development. Vitamin D supports embryo implantation. Folate supports egg quality and significantly decreases the risk of birth defects. Choline reduces miscarrage risk by protecting against neural tube defects. All of these nutrients and others can help support and promote female fertility, and you’ll find them in a good prenatal (ahem).

Side note – so many women don’t even realize they’re pregnant until they miss their first period, which is anywhere from four to six weeks of pregnancy. Keep in mind that brain and spine defects happen in the earliest weeks, usually well before you’ve seen those two pink lines. By starting prenatal vitamins early, you can ensure that your baby is getting essential nutrients for proper neural tube development before you even know you’re expecting. Plus, adequate amounts of nutrients like folate and choline early on can reduce the risk of birth defects as a whole, including cleft and lip palates and certain heart conditions. Little reminder here that half of all pregnancies in the U.S. are unplanned, which is why many experts advise men and women of childbearing age to err on the side of caution by taking prenatal vitamins even if they aren’t actively trying for a baby.

The Benefits of Prenatal Vitamins in the First Trimester

Once you’re really, truly pregnant, things really start happening. There is a lot going on during these first twelve weeks, and that’s true for the both of you. For your growing baby, so much critical growth happens in the early days, and specific nutrients need to be on hand to make it all happen properly. That’s where your prenatal vitamin comes in.

For baby:

  • Folate and choline. Just four weeks after conception, the neural tube has begun closing. Both your baby’s brain and spinal cord will develop from the neural tube, and clearly, everything needs to be perfect. Folate and choline are two of the most important nutrients for this development because they prevent neural tube abnormalities and other birth defects. 
  • Iron. This mineral ensures that your baby has all the oxygen necessary for proper development of the heart, lungs, and muscles. 
  • Vitamin D. This hormone is key for healthy bone development and the long-term health of your baby after birth. But fair warning – most prenatal vitamins aren’t delivering adequate amounts of vitamin D. Take it from the American Pregnancy Association: “It is unlikely your prenatal vitamin provides enough vitamin D. A recent study found women taking 4,000 IU of vitamin D daily had the greatest benefits in preventing preterm labor/births and infections.”
  • DHA. This is another critical nutrient during the first trimester for the growth and functional development of the brain.

For mama:

While your baby is busy growing, you’re likely navigating all sorts of early pregnancy symptoms. That includes tender breasts, the dreaded morning sickness (all day!), feeling the need to pee pretty much constantly, a bone-deep level of exhaustion you didn’t even know was possible, heartburn, and sensitivities to food (and smells!). Oh, and your emotions are a complete roller coaster on top of it all. 

The good news is that your prenatal vitamin really can help, and many of the same nutrients that your growing baby needs benefit you too.

Some research shows that starting prenatal vitamins before conception may reduce symptoms of nausea and vomiting – another reason to get on the prenatal train early.

  • Vitamins B6 and B12. Both have been shown to calm nausea and relax the digestive system.
  • Vitamin D. The “sunshine vitamin” can help support energy levels and modulate the hormonal roller coaster.
  • Iron. Mamas-to-be need extra iron during pregnancy because blood volume increases so significantly. Look for a chelated version – it’s easier on the tummy, and anything helps when you’re battling nausea morning to night!

The Benefits of Prenatal Vitamins in the Second Trimester

Supporting mama and baby is the entire point of the prenatal vitamin, so your respective nutrient needs aren’t going anywhere in the second trimester. Your baby has done the busy work of growing organs and systems and can now focus on putting on some pounds and inches. Meanwhile, you’re (hopefully) enjoying more energy and less nausea. Your boobs may not hurt as much, but heartburn and indigestion can definitely still be a constant companion. 

For baby:

  • Vitamin D. During this stage of growth, your baby relies on a steady supply of vitamin D to increase calcium absorption and build a strong, healthy skeletal system. 
  • Calcium. In addition to developing and maintaining strong bones and teeth, calcium plays a role in the heart, nerves, and muscles.
  • Iron. Same need, different trimester – your growing baby needs sufficient levels of oxygen for the proper development of the heart, lunges, and muscles.

For mama:

  • Vitamin D. During the second trimester, adequate amounts of vitamin D help reduce risks of gestational diabetes and preeclampsia.
  • Calcium. This is particularly important for women who are at risk of gestational hypertension. It can also reduce the risk of high blood pressure and preeclampsia.
  • Iron. This mineral helps mamas maintain a healthy immune system and fends off anemia.

The Benefits of Prenatal Vitamins in the Third Trimester

You’ve rounded third base and you’re heading for home! In the last trimester, your baby keeps packing on the pounds and space is suddenly at a premium. His or her little lungs are still maturing, and your little one will soon start maneuvering into position for the big day. And you, lucky lady, keep gaining weight and start getting seriously uncomfortable. Think backaches, heartburn, the complete inability to take a full breath, and an urgent need for the bathroom all the time.

For baby:

  • Iron. Same, same. As your baby’s development continues, he or she needs plenty of oxygen to make it all happen.
  • DHA. Brain development takes off during the third trimester, which makes DHA more important than ever. This nutrient also helps promote a healthy birth weight and has an impact on the length of gestation.
  • Calcium. This is a time of major growth, and calcium continues to aid in the development of strong bones and teeth.

For mama:

  • Magnesium. Frequent leg cramps are a telltale sign of a magnesium deficiency – something you can avoid with a good prenatal. Magnesium is important for bone health and protein utilization, and it also helps regulate blood sugar and blood pressure.
  • Iron. Your need for this mineral only grows the more your pregnancy progresses. Your body is working hard to nourish the placenta with substantial amounts of blood, and all that heavy lifting calls for plenty of iron.
  • Calcium. Just as in the second trimester, adequate amounts of calcium help reduce the risks of blood pressure issues and preeclampsia.
  • Vitamin D. Both preeclampsia and gestational diabetes occur more often in the third trimester, and ample vitamin D supplies can help reduce these risks.

Nope, it's not déjà vu. You and mama both really do need many of the same nutrients for the entire conception/pregnancy/postpartum ride. The effect is cumulative too, which is why it's so important to start prenatal vitamins early, during that preconception window. 

The Benefits of Prenatal Vitamins During Postpartum

You made it! You created and carried and delivered a perfect whole little human. And now, you begin the recovery process. Keep on keeping on with your prenatal vitamins, whether you’re breastfeeding or not. If you’re going the nursing route, studies find that supplementation directly benefits your baby. Meanwhile, those nutrients are helping you too. Vitamins and minerals in your prenatal vitamin can help protect against postpartum depression, support healthy milk production, regulate appetite, protect against fatigue and anemia, and promote energy.

And – believe it or not – your husband will benefit from sticking with his prenatal vitamins. In men, a steep drop in testosterone during late pregnancy and birth can negatively affect mood and energy levels, just when you’re bringing home a newborn. He can help stabilize his testosterone levels with the same men’s prenatal vitamin he took way back when you were still trying.

The Bottom Line

Here’s the thing – throughout your pregnancy, your baby is going to get all the nutrients he or she needs to grow. But unless you’re eating a great diet and supplementing with a high-quality prenatal vitamin, those nutrients are coming directly from you. At some point, a deficiency in your body’s nutrients will have a very real effect on your health.

What’s more, you simply won’t have all the right nutrients in all the right amounts if you aren’t prioritizing nutrition and filling in those dietary gaps, and that means a greater risk of birth defects and health issues. And let’s not forget the very real impact that the preconception health of both parents plays on a healthy conception, pregnancy, and baby. Your prenatal vitamin is a key player in all of it, from conception right through postpartum, and all three of you will only benefit.

Additional Resources

Special thanks to Becca, a fertility dietitian at Little Life Nutrition, for today's post! Becca is passionate about helping moms and dads-to-be uncover the root cause of fertility challenges, using nutrition, lifestyle, and functional lab testing to optimize her clients' chance of getting pregnant — a true "no-stone-left-unturned" approach. Here, she shares five ways to boost fertility naturally.

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