Whether you’re just starting to think about conceiving, currently pregnant, or breastfeeding, finding a quality prenatal vitamin — and taking it daily! — is crucial. Because most people’s daily diet can occasionally fall short of ideal, a supplement can help fill in those all-important nutrient gaps. And while we know you’ve got a ton of to-dos (creating a registry, picking a name, making baby food?!), finding a prenatal that works for you is key. But selecting the right one from the sea of pretty packaging out there is another quandary altogether. Here’s pro advice on what to look for when seeking out the perfect prenatal.

Asian pregnant woman grocery shopping at the vegetable aisle in supermarket

1. Read the fine print. “Not all prenatal supplements are created equal,” says Elizabeth Somer, registered dietitian, author of Eat Your Way to Happiness and medical advisory board member for Persona Nutrition. “It’s important to look for high-quality prenatal vitamins that are free of harsh chemicals, parabens, and phalates, and do not contain artificial flavors or colors.” Scan the label of any supplement bottle — you can find it below the list of included vitamins and minerals — to make sure these preservatives, stabilizers, and colorants are absent.

2. Watch out for “food-based” formulas. Sadly, there aren’t *actually* 18 stalks of broccoli in each tiny tablet. Some supplements are marketed as “whole-food” formulas, but they may actually be created by growing nutrients in a yeast culture to make them more easily digestible. The downside, Somer tells us, is that these “food forms” tend to actually have fewer nutrients than their synthetically produced counterparts, which are isolated and created artificially. “While the idea of food-based sounds good, there is little to no research to support the benefits,” Somer explains. “Also, keep in mind that these are supplements, not substitutes.” You’ll always be better off chomping down on the food in question than simply swallowing a supplement.

3. Notice any nausea. If you’re pregnant and still in your first trimester, chances are you’re no stranger to nausea, thanks to an influx of hormones. But know that your prenatal may also be a culprit: “With high amounts of vitamins and minerals, prenatal vitamins are notorious for causing nausea during pregnancy,” says Sheryl Ross, OB/GYN and women’s health expert at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, CA. To cut down on that woozy feeling, be sure to take your prenatals right after eating or right before bed. Or try swapping your formula for one that might be easier on your stomach — a gummy or powdered formula is sometimes easier to digest than the pills are.

4. Look for the fab five. While a pregnant woman and her baby need all 40+ essential nutrients, says Somer, some are more difficult to get in adequate amounts from food alone. Make sure your prenatal is packed with the following:

Methylated folate (L-5-MTHF): As folic acid is crucial to neural tube development early in pregnancy, it’s best to start taking this nutrient at least three months prior to conception, says Dr. Ross. However, thanks to a pesky genetic mutation (known as the MTHFR SNP) affecting more than 60 percent of the population, many can’t readily absorb synthetic folic acid. The methylated version of folate is one step further down the metabolism process, making it easier for the body to absorb. You’ll need at least 600mcg daily.

DHA Omega-3: DHA/EPA omega-3 fatty acids are sourced from fatty fish and are necessary building blocks for brain and eye development, and a recent Cochrane Review found that they may increase gestation time and reduce the risk of premature birth, Somer says. Aim for at least 1400mg of total combined omega-3 fatty acids.

Choline: Also critical for brain development and nervous system function, choline — which is found in egg yolks, lean red meat, fish, and legumes — has been associated with higher memory function in children, according to one study. Evidence also exists that links low choline levels with an increased risk of neural tube defects. Approximately 90 to 95 percent of pregnant women consume less choline than the daily recommended amount of 450mg, and it’s often not found in most prenatal supplements, according to the NIH’s Office of Dietary Supplements.

Iodine: Requirements for this essential mineral also greatly increase during pregnancy and postpartum, and are necessary for optimal thyroid and hormone health. A Cochrane Review found that iodine supplementation decreased the risk of postpartum hypothyroidism in mothers by 68 percent. Make sure your prenatal has at least 150mcg.

Vitamin D3 (cholecalciferol): Vitamin D3 is essential for maternal well-being and baby’s immune function, healthy cell division, and bone health, so seeking out a supplement with at least 600 IU of vitamin D is important, says Somer. Otherwise, a little safe sun exposure is your best bet, as vitamin D is hard to come by naturally in food forms, and there are just a few fortified foods (think: milk and OJ) made with the vitamin too.

5. Don’t forget to iron up. Thanks to the fact that maternal blood volume doubles during pregnancy, most women will require an increased intake of iron, as well, though iron supplements are notorious for causing major nausea and constipation. The bisglycinate form of iron is better tolerated, says Somer, but she notes that some women may have a condition that would preclude them from iron supplementation. Be sure to check with your doctor before supplementing with iron — or before starting any new supplement regime.

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