The Best Prenatal Vitamins
Start your baby off right
Synthetic or Food-Based?
We surveyed the ingredients labels of 71 over-the-counter brands, and then talked to a panel of doctors to find out what to look for in the best prenatal vitamin. The answer: a few key nutrients, like folic acid, vitamin D, and calcium, and (if possible) a third-party to vet it — so you actually know what you're taking.
- March 31, 2017 — Based on updated information from LabDoor, we’ve switched our top prenatal vitamin pick: We now recommend Baby & Me Pre & Post Natal Dietary Supplement over our former top choice, Deva Vegan Prenatal Multivitamin.
The Best Prenatal Vitamins
Google anything about prenatal vitamins and you’ll be hit with a tidal wave of contradictory and often ominous headlines: “Prenatal vitamins may reduce risk of pregnancy loss by 55%” lives just a few search results before, “Prenatal Multivitamins Can Raise Risk of Miscarriage.” A recent study even came out suggesting that prenatal vitamins might be unnecessary altogether. Add to the equation that they don’t have to be approved by the FDA (because they’re classified as “supplements”), and making the decision on which prenatal to choose — if any at all — can get downright scary.
So what’s the answer? All the experts we talked to unanimously agreed: Don’t skip them. Taking a daily regimen of prenatal vitamins will help the health of both you and your baby.
All our prenatal recommendations include the most important nutrients — folic acid, vitamins A and D, and iron, among others — but our favorite is Baby & Me. At about one dollar per serving, it is more expensive than our other top picks. However, it sources its vitamins from organic fruits and vegetables and has received high purity ratings from third-party testing group Labdoor.
Baby & Me does include a few extra herbal additives like raspberry leaf and dandelion root; if you prefer a no-frills prenatal and don’t care about synthetic versus food-based ingredients, we recommend Pure Encapsulations, which has everything you need and pretty much nothing you don’t — and will run you about 70 cents per serving.
If your doctor recommends a prenatal with added DHA and other omega-3 fatty acids, try Actif Prenatal Vitamin. It’s 46 cents per serving, and the only one of our top picks that includes these enhancements.
That said, what might work well for one person might not be a smart choice for another. Some women need more iron than others (women who are anemic, for example), while others might need more calcium. If you live in a cloudy area or really slather on the sunscreen, you might need a higher dosage of vitamin D. The best way to know what’s best for you is to talk to your doctor.
How We Found the Best Prenatal Vitamins
We started by compiling a list of all the over-the-counter vitamins we could find that are available from most major retailers, like Amazon, GNC, and Whole Foods. Our starting cohort of 71 brands contained both food-based vitamins (nutrients derived from food) and synthetic vitamins (nutrients created in a lab), since we wanted to find out if one was more beneficial than the other. (Spoiler alert: not really.)
We didn’t include prescription prenatals in this review. As Dr. Brian Levine, practice director at the Colorado Center for Reproductive Medicine (CCRM) New York, says, “Most prescription brands don’t add that much, even though they’re a lot more expensive. The over-the-counter brands of the major pharmaceutical chains, those tend to be really good at a low price.”
To start narrowing down our options, we talked to three doctors to determine what nutrients were most essential in a prenatal vitamin. All our top picks include:
- Vitamin A (in the form of beta-carotene): to help the baby’s organs and bones develop, and to aid in the repair of the mother’s tissue post delivery
- Folic acid: to prevent neural tube defects in the developing fetus
- Iron: to boost production of maternal blood volume
- Calcium: for bone health in both baby and mother
- Iodine: to aid in the brain development of the fetus
- Vitamin D: to aid in fetal development and help prevent preeclampsia
- Vitamins B12 and B6: for a healthy fetal nervous system
But picking a best required some more digging.
First, we cut any prenatal that didn’t contain the recommended dosage of folate or folic acid.
Any OB/GYN will tell you that folate (or its synthetic alter ego folic acid) is a hugely important part of a woman’s prenatal diet. Inadequate folate levels early in pregnancy can lead to neural tube defects, which sometimes result in infants being born with paralyzed legs or improperly formed skulls, among other problems.
Folate exists naturally in leafy green vegetables (brussels sprouts have some of the highest folate levels of any food) as well as fruit, grains, beans, and some dairy products. Folic acid is also added to most breads, grains, pasta, and cereals manufactured in the US, following a 1998 government mandate aimed at improving general public health.
But doctors and researchers widely agree that pregnant women and women trying to conceive should take extra folic acid in supplement form to make up for any dietary gaps. “Even among people who are actually pregnant, only about 60 percent are taking folate,” said Dr. Scott Sullivan, an associate professor at the Medical University of South Carolina. “This is an instance where we can stop devastating, lifelong birth defects by just taking a vitamin — yet we fail.”
We eliminated all vitamins that didn’t contain a minimum of 400 micrograms of folic acid, as recommended by the CDC. We also cut any that contained more than the CDC’s recommended tolerable upper limit for pregnant women — about 1,000 micrograms. While a baseline amount of folic acid is essential, very high amounts could cause stomach aches, sleep interruption, or (in rare case) seizures.
21st Century Prenatal DHA, Baby Booster Prenatal Protein Powder, Bluebonnet Early Promise Prenatal Gentle DHA, Dr. Fuhrman’s Gentle Prenatal Multivitamin, Emerald Labs Prenatal Multivitamin, Garden of Life Ocean’s Mom Prenatal DHA, New Chapter Wholemega Prenatal, Nordic Naturals Prenatal DHA, Pink Stork Nourishment Prenatal Vitamin Spray, Spectrum Essentials Prenatal DHA
We cut any prenatal that didn’t contain enough vitamin D.
This is one area where it’s fairly clear that most pregnant women benefit from a dietary supplement. A developing fetus uses vitamin D to grow strong, healthy bones, and it helps boost the immune systems of mothers-to-be. It may also help protect against a host of pregnancy-related problems, including preeclampsia (a condition that can lead to organ failure or seizures in a pregnant woman — and could keep the placenta from getting enough blood).
Our bodies produce vitamin D naturally when exposed to sunlight, but vitamin D deficiency is overwhelmingly common in the US. According to a 2009 study published in Scientific American, at least three-fourths of American teens and adults have a vitamin D deficiency. One study suggests these women take a whopping 1,000-2,000 I.U. of vitamin D a day, but most prenatals don’t have those high levels. We looked for supplements that had at least 400 I.U. of vitamin D (the amount recommended by the CDC for infants), and encourage you to speak with your doctor about adding even more through another supplement if necessary.
Enzymatic Therapy Doctor’s Choice Prenatal Multivitamin, Nature’s Dynamics Prenatal Plus Gummy, Nature’s Way Completia Prenatal Multivitamin, Nature’s Way Prenatal Complete Vitamins, NOW Prenatal Multivitamin with DHA
And we ditched anything with retinol forms of vitamin A.
Vitamin A is found in two forms: retinoids and carotenoids. It’s tough to get too much of carotenoids (beta-carotene), the type of vitamin A that’s found abundantly in fruits and vegetables. You would have to eat the equivalent of two pounds of carrots in 24 hours to even notice any adverse effects. But too much vitamin A from retinoids (found in meat, dairy, and eggs) can put a fetus at risk for birth defects. It’s unlikely that small doses of retinoids in prenatal vitamins would prove dangerous for a pregnant woman or her child — Levine notes that vitamin manufacturers “use the lowest necessary dosages” — but we’re eliminating them just to be safe. Vitamin A deficiencies are rare, since the food we eat is jam-packed full of this important nutrient, so this is one area where you can afford to be choosy.
First Response Prenatal and Postnatal Multivitamin Gummy, Nature’s Truth Prenatal Vitamin & Mineral Formula, Nature’s Way Alive! Prenatal Gummy Vitamins, Nutrition Now Prenatal Gummy Multivitamin, Prenatal Oxylent, Rainbow Light Prenatal One, SmartyPants Prenatal Complete Gummy Vitamins, Twinlab Prenatal Care, Vitafusion Prenatal Gummy Vitamins
We cut junk ingredients.
Bellybar Prenatal Chewable Vitamins If you have a hard time keeping down pills, try this chewable. It passed every round of our testing, except for having added sweeteners (1 gram per serving), and is only 40 cents per serving.
Look at most vitamin labels and you’ll probably see line after line of words you can’t pronounce. Consider “butylated hydroxytoluene,” for example (it’s a lab-made preservative). Some of these ingredients are used as fillers or binders in pills — and while they probably won’t hurt you, they aren’t necessarily good for you either, and there are great options that don’t include any.
We eliminated anything that contained artificial coloring or ingredients that are potentially toxic, including titanium dioxide, carmine, butylated hydroxytoluene, benzoic acid, PEG 3350, talc, and magnesium silicate.
We also cut vitamins containing sweeteners because, in most cases, if you’re older than 10, a vitamin doesn’t need to be sweet. But after talking to some pregnant women — including one on our own team — we realized this isn’t realistic for every woman. Sometimes swallowing pills (and keeping them down) just isn’t going to happen. For those of you with tender tummies, we recommend Bellybar's Chewable Vitamins.
21st Century Prenatal Multivitamin + DHA, AVASIA Prenatal Vitamins, Centrum Specialist Prenatal Multivitamin, Enfamil Expecta Prenatal Vitamin, Finest Nutrition Prenatal Vitamins, GNC Prenatal Formula without Iron, GNC Women’s Prenatal Formula with DHA, Happy Healthy Smart Prenatal Vitamins, Healthy Mama Be Well Rounded Prenatal and DHA Supplement System, Nature Made Prenatal Multi + DHA, Nature’s Bounty Prenatal Multivitamins, One a Day Women’s Prenatal One, One a Day Women’s Prenatal Vitamin with DHA, Similac Prenatal Multivitamin, Spring Valley Prenatal Multivitamin, Sundown Naturals Prenatal Vitamins, V’tafem Prenatal Vitamins
Finally, we looked at questions of convenience, palatability, and trustworthiness.
We sought out products that didn’t smell bad or require swallowing a huge pill (again — pregnancy isn’t the time for experimenting with your gag reflex). We also investigated whether the ingredients in each prenatal had undergone testing by independent organizations to verify their claimed dosages.
In the end, only seven prenatal vitamins made the cut — and six are featured below. Solaray Once Daily Prenatal met our nutritional criteria, but was just too stinky to recommend, ranking somewhere between rotten eggs and farmyard funk on our smell-O-meter. If you don’t have to deal with it, why bother?
Our Picks for the Best Prenatal Vitamins
Baby & Me’s tablets provide every key nutrient our expert panel recommended, including 800 micrograms of folate (within the 400-1,000 range recommended by the CDC). The one drawback is that you’ll need to take four tablets a day to hit the recommended daily serving. But the pills can be taken with or without food, and the company claims you’re able to take them “on an empty stomach without upset,” a fact Amazon reviewers generally agree with.
You’ll pay about a dollar per serving, which makes Baby & Me pricier than our other top picks. But it’s easy to see what you’re paying for: rather than synthetic ingredients, Baby & Me uses only food-based ingredients, with the source of each listed on the label: Its folic acid is derived from organic broccoli, its vitamin C comes from organic oranges, and its vitamin D from brewer’s yeast. Baby & Me also received the top spot in third-party testing group LabDoor’s ranking of prenatal vitamins (although it was dinged for having more folate than the label reported), edging out 25 other supplements.
We also liked the transparency of MegaFood, Baby & Me’s manufacturer. The company has a live video feed of its manufacturing facilities, and boasts certification from the International Organization of Standardization (ISO), a third-party group that “sets standards for quality assurance.” MegaFood is also GMP-registered with the National Sanitation Foundation (which means it follows their guidelines for good manufacturing processes).
Baby & Me does contain a short list of organic herbal ingredients, including raspberry leaf, ginger root, chamomile, and dandelion. These are fairly common supplements, but there’s surprisingly little research about the effects of herbs on pregnancy, so some women like to avoid them. If you’re considering herbal supplements, it’s a good idea to have a conversation with your doctor. And if you’d rather skip them altogether, MegaFood does offer Baby & Me 2, a prenatal supplement that’s similar — minus the herbs (and with a few minor dosage differences, like 600 mcg of folate per serving versus Baby & Me’s 800 mcg).
Looking for a no-frills supplement without herbal add-ins? These capsule vitamins from Pure Encapsulations contain all the nutrients we identified as most important for developing fetuses and pregnant women, and almost nothing else. And you get a combined 1,000 micrograms of folate and folic acid to guard against birth defects in a daily two-capsule serving — as much as you can safely consume each day, according to the CDC.
Pure Encapsulations does use a mix of food-based and synthetic ingredients, but it’s a well-known brand for naturopaths because of its manufacturing process: it’s hypoallergenic, doesn’t use GMOs, dyes, or other bad ingredients (like PEG 3350), and uses third-party laboratories like Merieux NutriSciences to verify potency and purity of raw materials and finished products.
These prenatals cost 66 cents a serving, according to Amazon pricing. The capsules themselves smell a bit chalky, but they’re nowhere near as funky as Solaray Once Daily Prenatal. But it’s significant enough that some nauseous first-trimester mamas might wrinkle their noses at first.
Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and other omega-3 fatty acids are thought by some researchers to improve visual and cognitive development in a fetus. Actif Prenatal Vitamin — an organic, food-based softgel — includes DHA, derived from fish oil.
While some doctors recommend taking a DHA supplement, others advise women to eat pregnancy-safe fish (such as salmon or trout) a few times a week to obtain necessary omega-3 fatty acids. We got varying advice from the doctors we interviewed — some said it’s a great added boost for the baby. But Dr. Sullivan said he tells patients to think twice before paying more for added DHA.
“There’s good evidence that essential fatty acids and omega-3s are helpful in the development of fetuses, but only if you get it through foods,” he said.
If your doctor recommends a prenatal with added DHA and omega-3 fatty acids, however, Actif will likely be your best choice. Our other two top picks, Baby & Me Pre & Post Natal Dietary Supplement and Pure Encapsulations PreNatal Nutrients, don’t have any.
Actif’s prenatal vitamin gets its 800 micrograms of food-derived folate from lemons, and also contains a blend of herbal ingredients including peppermint leaf, ginger roots, and red raspberry leaf (which could be a pro or a con depending on how you feel about herbal supplements). You only need to take one softgel daily, and it costs a middle-of-the-road 46 cents per serving, per Amazon pricing.
Other Prenatal Vitamins to Consider
Deva Vegan Prenatal Multivitamin. A cheaper option, at only 11 cents per serving, with ingredients derived from synthetic sources.
Douglas Laboratories Prenatal. These vegetarian capsules are similar to the ones produced by Pure Encapsulations, but cost more per serving (82 cents per serving instead of 74).
Mother’s Essentials No-Nausea Prenatal. Neither of our two non-DHA top picks include food-based nutrients. If that’s important to you, Mother’s Essentials is a great choice. It contains all the good ingredients our expert panel identified in exclusively food-derived forms (including 800 micrograms of folic acid) at 75 cents per serving.
Our Top Picks at a Glance
Price / Price per Serving
Synthetic or Food-Based
$34 / $1.12
Folic Acid (800 mcg); Vitamin D (600 IU)
$22 / $0.74
Folate, Folic Acid (1,000 mcg), Vitamin D (600 IU)
$41 / $0.46
Folate (800 mcg), Vitamin D (400 IU)
Yes (Fish Oil for DHA)
$10 / $0.11
Folic Acid (550 mcg), Vitamin D (400 IU)
$24 / $0.82
Folate (800 mcg), Vitamin D (800 IU)
$15 / $0.75
Folic Acid (800 mcg), Vitamin D (400 IU)
Did You Know?
Yes, you should be taking a prenatal viatmin.
Every doctor we talked to unanimously agreed: taking a prenatal vitamin regularly before and during pregnancy is a smart idea. It can only help reduce the risk of birth defects, and improve your own health during pregnancy, too.
However, in July 2016, a study out of the UK published in the journal Drug and Therapeutics Bulletin cast doubt on that advice.
The researchers concluded that of all the vitamins required by growing fetuses, only folic acid and vitamin D were necessary in supplement form. It resulted in a parade of news stories and handwringing blog posts questioning whether prenatal vitamins are necessary — or if they’re worth the sometimes hefty cost. The most salient question most articles asked was this: If expecting or pregnant women eat healthy diets and take folic acid and vitamin D via daily supplements, do they really need to add additional nutrients in daily pill form?
“Unless you are a die-hard foodie, I would not advise skipping it,” says Dr. Nicole Avena, author of What to Eat When You’re Pregnant. “This is because there are always days that something comes up, and we can’t get all of the right nutrients.”
The doctors we talked to also questioned the recent research out of the UK. “That particular paper, while I think it was a nice review, it wasn’t really a study,” Dr. Sullivan told us. “There wasn’t any new data or anything. It was an opinion piece.”
But know they can't do everything.
Our expert panel also emphasized the fact that prenatal vitamins can’t completely compensate for a poor diet during pregnancy either. Good supplements do precisely what they say: They supplement healthy eating habits and conscientious nutrition.
“Some people feel that, ‘All I’ve got to do is take a prenatal vitamin and I’m good,’” Dr. Sullivan said. “That’s not necessarily true. Some people need even more supplementation; other people need to pay attention their diet as well.”
Prenatals aren’t vetted by the FDA.
There’s a good reason our top pick is a prenatal vitamin that underwent rigorous independent lab testing. You might think the government would review anything pregnant women are taking daily for health-related reasons, but the reality is that prenatal vitamins are classified as a supplement and aren’t subject to approval by the FDA (though, the agency does provide manufacturing standards). Just like with other vitamins and supplements, there is very little oversight for manufacturers — and no guarantee that you’re actually getting what the label promises.
“Since vitamins aren’t held to the strict standards that baby foods and other items are, you want to be sure you are buying them from a quality company that is reputable,” she said.
Food-based or synthetic? There’s not a clear answer.
Food-based vitamins are often claimed to be easier on your stomach and healthier because they’re derived from natural sources (folate from lemons, for example), but there isn’t conclusive evidence proving they’re superior to vitamins with nutrients created in a lab. In fact, Dr. Sullivan told us he tells his patients to take synthetic vitamins because they contain potassium iodine, which is a more stable and reliable form of iodine than those derived from natural sources such as kelp. Because opinions seem split, our top picks include a variety of food-based and synthetic supplement options.
The Bottom Line
A prenatal vitamin alone won’t ensure a healthy pregnancy, but it will help make up for any nutritional gaps that exist in your diet. Seek out a prenatal that contains essential nutrients such as folic acid, iron, vitamin D, and calcium — and make sure you’re eating a balanced diet with a wide variety of vegetables, fruits, grains, and proteins.
And broken record time: Always consult with your doctor before taking any prenatal vitamin, too.
The Best Prenatal Vitamins: Summed Up
Get advice. Bring your choice of prenatal vitamin to your next doctor’s appointment and ask your doctor to scan the label for red flags. Ask if they advise any additional supplementation given your health profile.
If possible, start before you get pregnant. Neural tube defects happen during the first month of pregnancy, when a fetus is in the earliest stages of development. And often, that’s before women even know they’re pregnant. Since it’s critical to have sufficient levels of folic acid during those first weeks of pregnancy, doctors recommend women start taking a daily prenatal vitamin one or two months before trying to conceive (this includes undergoing in vitro fertilization).
Queasy? Constipated? You’re not alone. Some women report taking prenatals at night instead of morning helps with nausea. Iron in prenatals can cause constipation, but it can be countered with lots of water — and a good-old-fashioned high-fiber diet.
If that doesn’t help, don’t panic. If you still can’t stomach a prenatal vitamin, talk to your doctor about your options. They might recommend taking a chewable prenatal, which are sometimes easier to digest. Our favorite: Bellybar's Chewable Vitamins.