Eating a healthy, varied diet in pregnancy will help you to get most of the vitamins and minerals you need. There are some vitamins and minerals that are especially important.
It's best to get vitamins and minerals from the food you eat, but when you are pregnant you will need to take a folic acid supplement. It's recommended that you take:
- 400 micrograms (mcg) of folic acid each day - you should take this from before you are pregnant until you are 12 weeks pregnant
The Department of Health also advises you to consider taking a vitamin D supplement (see Vitamin D in pregnancy).
Do not take vitamin A supplements, or any supplements containing vitamin A (retinol), as too much could harm your baby.
You can get supplements from pharmacies and supermarkets, or your GP may be able to prescribe them for you. If you want to get your folic acid from a multivitamin tablet, make sure that the tablet does not contain vitamin A (or retinol).
You may be eligible for free vitamins through the Healthy Start scheme. Read more about Healthy Start.
Folic acid before and during pregnancy
Folic acid is important for pregnancy, as it can help to prevent birth defects known as neural tube defects, including spina bifida. You should take a 400mcg folic acid tablet every day while you are trying to get pregnant and until you are 12 weeks pregnant. If you didn't take folic acid before you conceived, you should start as soon as you find out that you are pregnant.
You should also eat foods that contain folate (the natural form of folic acid), such as green leafy vegetables and brown rice. Some breakfast cereals and some fat spreads such as margarine have folic acid added to them. It is difficult to get the amount of folate recommended for pregnancy from food alone, which is why it is important to take a folic acid supplement.
Read more about healthy eating in pregnancy.
Higher dose folic acid
Some women have an increased risk of having a pregnancy affected by a neural tube defect, and are advised to take a higher dose of 5 milligrams (mg) of folic acid each day until they are 12 weeks pregnant. Women have an increased risk if:
- they or their partner have a neural tube defect
- they have had a previous pregnancy affected by a neural tube defect
- they or their partner have a family history of neural tube defects
- they have diabetes
In addition, women who are taking anti-epileptic medication should consult their GP for advice, as they may also need to take a higher dose of folic acid. Find out about epilepsy, anti-epileptic medication and pregnancy.
If any of the above applies to you, talk to your GP as they can prescribe a higher dose of folic acid. Your GP or midwife may also recommend additional screening tests during your pregnancy.
Vitamin D in pregnancy
Vitamin D regulates the amount of calcium and phosphate in the body, which are needed to keep bones, teeth and muscles healthy. All adults, including pregnant and breastfeeding women, need 10 micrograms (10mcg) of vitamin D a day, and should consider taking a supplement containing this amount.
Our bodies make vitamin D when our skin is exposed to summer sunlight (from late March/early April to the end of September). It's not known exactly how much time is needed in the sun to make enough vitamin D to meet the body's needs, but if you are out in the sun take care to cover up or protect your skin with sunscreen before you start to turn red or burn.
Vitamin D is also in some foods, including oily fish (such as salmon, mackerel, herring and sardines), eggs and red meat. Vitamin D is added to all infant formula milk, as well as some breakfast cereals, fat spreads and non-dairy milk alternatives. The amounts added to these products can vary and might only be added in small amounts.
As vitamin D is found only in a small number of foods, whether naturally or added, it might be difficult to get enough from foods alone. So everyone over the age of five years, including pregnant and breastfeeding women, should consider taking a daily supplement containing 10mcg of vitamin D.
Most people aged five years and over in the UK will probably get enough vitamin D from sunlight in the summer (from late March/early April to the end of September), so you might choose not to take a vitamin D supplement during these months.
You can get vitamin supplements containing vitamin D free of charge if you are pregnant or breastfeeding and qualify for the Healthy Start scheme.
If you have dark skin
If you have dark skin (for example, if you are of African, African Caribbean or south Asian origin) or always cover your skin when outside, you may be at particular risk of not having enough vitamin D (vitamin D deficiency). Talk to your midwife or doctor if this applies to you.
Iron in pregnancy
If you are short of iron, you'll probably get very tired and may suffer from anaemia. Lean meat, green leafy vegetables, dried fruit, and nuts contain iron. If you'd like to eat peanuts or foods that contain peanuts (such as peanut butter) during pregnancy, you can do so as part of a healthy balanced diet unless you're allergic to them, or your health professional advises you not to.
Many breakfast cereals have iron added. If the iron level in your blood becomes low, your GP or midwife will advise you to take iron supplements.
Vitamin C in pregnancy
Vitamin C protects cells and helps to keep them healthy.
A balanced diet containing fruit and vegetables, including broccoli, citrus fruits, tomatoes, bell peppers, and blackcurrants, can provide all the vitamin C that you need.
Calcium in pregnancy
Calcium is vital for making your baby's bones and teeth. Dairy products and fish with edible bones - such as sardines - are rich in calcium. Breakfast cereals, dried fruit - such as figs and apricots - bread, almonds, tofu (a vegetable protein made from soya beans) and green leafy vegetables - such as watercress, broccoli and curly kale - are other good sources of calcium.
You also need to know which foods to avoid in pregnancy.
Vegetarian, vegan and special diets in pregnancy
A varied and balanced vegetarian diet should give enough nutrients for you and your baby during pregnancy. However, you might find it more difficult to get enough iron and vitamin B12. Talk to your midwife or doctor about how to make sure you are getting enough of these important nutrients.
If you are vegan (you cut out all animal products from your diet), or you follow a restricted diet because of food intolerance (for example, a gluten-free diet for coeliac disease) or for religious reasons, talk to your midwife or GP. Ask to be referred to a dietitian for advice on how to make sure you are getting all the nutrients you need for you and your baby.
Find out more about healthy eating for vegetarian and vegan pregnant women.
Healthy Start vitamins
The Healthy Start scheme provides vouchers to pregnant women and families who qualify. The vouchers can be used to buy milk and plain fresh and frozen vegetables at local shops. You'll also get coupons that can be exchanged for free vitamins locally.
Healthy Start vitamin tablets for women are specially designed for pregnant and breastfeeding women, and contain vitamins C and D and folic acid.
Healthy Start children's vitamin drops are for infants aged from six months to four years old, and contain vitamins A, C and D.
If you qualify for the Healthy Start scheme, you can swap your coupons for free vitamins locally - just ask your midwife or health visitor where they are accepted in your area. You can also use the Healthy Start postcode search to find where you can use the vouchers.
If you're not on the Healthy Start scheme, some NHS organisations still offer the vitamins for free or sell them - ask your midwife about local arrangements.
You qualify for Healthy Start if you're at least 10 weeks pregnant or have a child under four years old, and you or your family get:
- Income Support
- Income-based Jobseeker's Allowance
- Income-related Employment and Support Allowance
- Child Tax Credit (but not Working Tax Credit unless your family is receiving Working Tax Credit run-on only*) and has an annual family income of £16,190 or less (2014/15)
If you are pregnant and under 18 years old, you qualify for Healthy Start vouchers regardless of your income.
*Working Tax Credit run-on is the Working Tax Credit you receive in the four weeks immediately after you have stopped working for 16 hours per week (single adults) or 24 hours per week (couples).
You can download a Healthy Start application form at the Healthy Start website, or call the Healthy Start helpline on 0345 607 6823 and order a copy.
If you are claiming Universal Credit and are pregnant or have a child under four years old, call the Healthy Start helpline on 0345 607 6823 for information about any discretionary support that may be available.
Article provided by NHS Choices