Vitamins and minerals during pregnancy

Vitamins and minerals help give your body the nutrients it needs to stay healthy and repair any damages. You can get most vitamins by eating healthy foods that include:

  • Fruits
  • Vegetables
  • Whole-grain breads and pastas
  • Milk products
  • Beans
  • Lean red meat
  • Poultry
  • Fish that is low in mercury

It may be hard for some people to get enough vitamins and minerals in their foods. They may need to take a supplement. A supplement usually comes in the form of tablets or capsules.

Examples of people who need a supplement are:

  • Women who can get pregnant should take a daily multivitamin containing 400 micrograms of folic acid every day to help prevent birth defects. Even if a woman is using birth control, it's a good idea to take a multivitamin, just in case she gets pregnant.
  • Pregnant women often take a prenatal vitamin. It contains folic acid and important nutrients needed during pregnancy.
  • People with certain health conditions may need extra vitamins and minerals. Some illnesses, such as anemia, arise because the body doesn't have enough of a certain nutrient, like iron. People with these illnesses can get extra nutrients through the foods they eat or supplements they take.

Important nutrients during pregnancy
During pregnancy, your health provider may give you a prescription for a prenatal vitamin so that you and your baby get important nutrients for health. You can also buy prenatal vitamins without a prescription at most local drug stores.

Folic acid is one of the nutrients included in most prenatal vitamins.

  • Folic acid helps prevent birth defects of the brain and spinal cord. It may also protect the pregnant woman against cancer and stroke.
  • Pregnant women should get 600 micrograms of folic acid every day from food and supplements.
  • Most prenatal vitamins contain 600–1,000 micrograms of folic acid.

Iron is another important nutrient for pregnant women. It also can be found in prenatal vitamins.

  • Iron helps the muscles in both mother and baby develop.
  • It helps prevent anemia, a condition in which a woman’s red blood cells are too small and too few. Red blood cells carry oxygen around your body and to your baby.
  • Iron can also lower the risk of preterm birth and low birthweight.

Calcium, also available in prenatal vitamins, helps keep bones and teeth strong for mom and baby.

  • Calcium helps the nervous, muscular and circulatory systems stay healthy.
  • When a pregnant woman doesn't get enough calcium from the foods she eats, the body takes the calcium from her bones to give it to her growing baby.
  • Having less calcium in the bones can cause serious health conditions later in life, such as osteoporosis. In osteoporosis, the bones thin, and the person is at increased risk of bone breaks.

Docosahexaenoic acid, or DHA, is an omega-3 fatty acid. It helps to support the development and function of the baby's brain and eyes.

  • Women should get at least 200 milligrams of DHA every day.
  • It may be hard to find prenatal vitamins that have DHA in them. But some prenatal vitamins are packaged and sold with a separate bottle of DHA on the side.

Keep in mind
Before taking any supplement, talk with your health care provider about whether you need it and, if so, how much you should take. Some supplements are dangerous during pregnancy. Also, large doses are sometimes risky. For instance, taking too much vitamin A during pregnancy can cause birth defects. Don't take more than 5,000 IUs (international units) of vitamin A per day.

March 2009

Most common questions

How much weight should I gain during my pregnancy?

The exact amount of weight you need to gain depends on how much you weigh before pregnancy and your Body Mass Index (BMI). Below are some guidelines, but talk to your health provider about your specific pregnancy weight gain goals.

If you began pregnancy at a healthy weight, you should gain 25 to 35 pounds over the 9 months. If you gain between 1 and about 4 ½ pounds in the first trimester, you should put on about 1 pound every week in the second and third trimesters.

If you began pregnancy underweight, you should probably gain about 28 to 40 pounds. If you gain between 1 and about 4 ½ pounds in the first trimester, try to gain slightly over a pound a week in the second and third trimesters.
If you began pregnancy overweight, you should gain only 15 to 25 pounds over the 9 months. If you gain between 1 and about 4 ½ pounds in the first trimester, you should put on slightly over ½ pound every week in the second and third trimesters. While you don't want to gain too much weight, never try to lose weight during pregnancy because that could harm your baby.

If you were obese (with a BMI over 30) at the start of your pregnancy, you should gain only 11 to 20 pounds over the 9 months. If you gain between 1 and about 4 ½ pounds in the first trimester, aim for gaining slightly under ½ pound every week in the second and third trimesters.

Is it safe to eat cold cuts when I'm pregnant?

It's not safe for pregnant women to eat deli meats (such as ham, turkey, salami and bologna) or hot dogs unless the food has been thoroughly heated and is steaming hot. These foods can cause a form of food poisoning called listeriosis and is caused by bacteria. Heating deli meats until steaming hot will kill the bacteria if it's present.

Listeriosis is especially dangerous during pregnancy. Most people don't get sick when they eat food contaminated with listeria. But healthy pregnant women are more likely than other healthy adults to get listeriosis and are more likely to become dangerously ill from it.

The flu-like symptoms of listeriosis can sometimes advance to potentially life-threatening meningitis (infection of the membranes covering the brain, with symptoms such as severe headache and stiff neck) and blood infection. Contact your health care provider if you're pregnant and you develop any of these symptoms.

Is it safe to eat fish raw or seared during pregnancy?

You should avoid all raw or seared fish when you're pregnant. (Seared fish are typically not fully cooked throughout.) Raw fish, including sushi and sashimi, and undercooked finfish and shellfish (including oysters, clams, mussels and scallops) are more likely to contain parasites or bacteria than cooked fish. 

Avoid swordfish, shark, king mackerel and tile fish, even when cooked. These fish have more mercury than other fish. Mercury can be transferred to your growing baby and cause serious health problems. Stay away from game fish, too, until you check its safety with your local health department. A game fish is any fish caught for sport, such as trout and bass.

The USDA recommends that pregnant women limit their fish consumption to 12 ounces of a variety of cooked fish per week.

©2013 March of Dimes Foundation. The March of Dimes is a non-profit organization recognized as tax-exempt under Internal Revenue Code section 501(c)(3).