Vitamins and nutrition in pregnancy
Eating a healthy, varied diet in pregnancy will help you to get all the vitamins and minerals you need. There are some vitamins and minerals that are especially important.
It is best to get vitamins and minerals from the food you eat, but when you are pregnant you will need to take some supplements as well. You can find more information about each of these further down the page:
- 10 micrograms of vitamin D each day throughout your pregnancy and if you breastfeed
- 400 micrograms of folic acid each day – ideally you should take this from before you are pregnant until you are 12 weeks pregnant
Do not take vitamin A supplements, or any supplements containing vitamin A, 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 or vitamin D from a multivitamin tablet, make sure that the tablet does not contain vitamin A (or retinol).
Folic acid is important for pregnancy as it can help prevent birth defects known as neural tube defects, which can cause conditions such as spina bifida. You should take a 400 microgram 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 folic acid, such as green leafy vegetables and brown rice. Some breakfast cereals, breads and margarines have folic acid added to them. Find out more about healthy eating in pregnancy.
You need to take a bigger dose of folic acid if:
- you have had a baby with spina bifida
- you have diabetes
- you are taking medicine for epilepsy
- you have coeliac disease
Speak to your midwife or doctor about this.
You need vitamin D to keep your bones healthy and to provide your baby with enough vitamin D for the first few months of its life. You should take a supplement of 10 micrograms of vitamin D each day. Vitamin D regulates the amount of calcium and phosphate in the body, and these are needed to help keep bones and teeth healthy. Not enough vitamin D can cause children's bones to soften and can lead to rickets (a disease that affects bone development in children).
Only a few foods contain vitamin D, such as oily fish, fortified margarines, some breakfast cereals and taramasalata. The best source of vitamin D is summer sunlight on your skin. The amount of time you need in the sun to make enough vitamin D is different for every person, and depends on things like skin type, the time of day and time of year. But you don't need to sunbathe: the amount of sun you need to make enough vitamin D is less than the amount that causes tanning or burning. If you have dark skin or always cover your skin, you may be at particular risk of vitamin D deficiency. Talk to your midwife or doctor if you're worried about this.
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.
You need vitamin C as it may help you to absorb iron from food. Citrus fruit, tomatoes, broccoli, peppers, blackcurrants, potatoes and some pure fruit juices are good sources of vitamin C. If your iron levels are low, it may help to drink orange juice with an iron-rich meal.
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.
Vegetarian, vegan and special diets
A varied and balanced vegetarian diet should give enough nutrients for you and your baby during pregnancy. However, you might find it hard 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 (ie you cut out all animal products from your diet), or you follow another type of restricted diet, such as gluten free, because of food intolerance (eg coeliac disease) or for religious reasons, talk to your maternity team. 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.
You may be able to get Healthy Start vouchers, which you can use to buy milk and plain fresh and frozen fruit and vegetables at local shops. You can't use vouchers to buy fresh or frozen fruit and veg with added fat, sugar, salt and flavourings such as oven chips and seasoned stir frys. You’ll also get coupons that can be exchanged for free vitamins locally.
You qualify for Healthy Start if you’re at least 10 weeks pregnant or have a child under four years old, have a family income of less than £16,190 a year (for the year 2011/12), and you or your family get:
- Income Support, or
- Income-based Jobseeker's Allowance, or
- Income-related Employment and Support Allowance, or
- Child Tax Credit (but not Working Tax Credit unless your family is receiving Working Tax Credit run-on only, which is the Working Tax Credit you get in the four weeks immediately after you have stopped working for 16 hours more more per week)
If you are pregnant and under 18 years old, you qualify for Healthy Start vouchers regardless of your income.
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