Supplements during pregnancy

Folic acid

You may have heard or read about needing to take a folic acid supplement or eat more folate (this is what folic acid is called when its naturally present in foods). This section will let you know why this is important.

A folic acid supplement is recommended prior to conception and up to 12 weeks of pregnancy to lower the risk of neural tube defects (NTDs). Don’t worry if your pregnancy was unplanned and you have not been taking a daily folic acid supplement, but do start taking it as soon as you can.

You should also try to consume more foods that contain folate (the natural form of folic acid). These are foods such as oranges, berries, green leafy vegetables, beetroot, beans and brown bread.

You should take a 400 µg folic acid supplement daily up to the 12th week of your pregnancy

Some women have an increased risk of having a pregnancy affected by a neural tube defect and are advised to take a slightly higher dose of folic acid. You have an increased risk if there is a family history of neural tube defects or you have diabetes. If you're taking anti-epileptic medication, you may also need to take a higher dose of folic acid. Talk to your GP if you think you may need to take a higher dose of folic acid.

Did you know…..?
Some Facts on Neural Tube defects

  • Neural tube defects (NTDs) are a group of serious birth defects that affect the developing nervous system.
  • The central nervous system (brain and the spinal cord) normally develops first as a flat sheet of cells (the neural plate) which rolls up (the neural tube) in weeks 3 and 4 of pregnancy and closes to form the central nervous system. If the tube doesn’t close properly this results in a neural tube defect (NTD).
  • Some examples of NTDs are spina bifida, anencephaly or encephalocele

At present the precise cause of NTDs is unknown and research continues. However, we do know that taking folic acid supplements can reduce the risk of NTDs.

Vitamin D

This vitamin is particularly important for the growth and development of your baby’s bones and helps to maintain the health of your bones too. Your skin produces vitamin D when it is exposed to sunlight, but the sun in the UK is only strong enough in the summer months (April to mid-October). You can also get vitamin D from food but food sources are limited; sources include oily fish, fat spreads and eggs.

Most people should be able to get all the vitamin D they need by eating a healthy balanced diet and by getting some summer sun.

However, national surveys show that many women of childbearing age have low vitamin D status, particularly in winter months. As a pregnant or breastfeeding women, you are at risk of not getting enough vitamin D, particularly if you are not exposed to much sunlight (you cover up your skin or spend a large amount of time indoors) or you have darker skin (e.g you are of African, African-Caribbean or South Asian origin) as your skin will not produce as much vitamin D from sunlight.

To make sure that you get enough vitamin D all year round, all pregnant and breastfeeding women are advised to take a daily supplement containing 10 μg of vitamin D. This will also help to provide your baby with enough vitamin D for the first few months of his or her life.

Some pregnant women (all those under 18 and those on certain benefits) may be entitled to receive free vitamins that include folic acid and vitamin D under the Healthy Start scheme. You can find out more from www.healthystart.nhs.uk

Avoid too much vitamin A

Vitamin A is important for good health and for the healthy development of your baby, but large amounts can harm your unborn baby, causing malformations. You should not take any supplements containing vitamin A or retinol (also watch out for multivitamin supplements which may contain these and fish liver oil supplements such as cod liver oil). Furthermore, you should avoid eating liver and liver products (such as liver pate) because they are very high in vitamin A.