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Early brain development starts in the first few weeks of pregnancy, and several nutrients are critical for this. Prenatal vitamins aren't meant to replace a healthy diet, but they can ensure that baby gets the nutrients she needs for healthy brain growth. This is especially true if your body's a bit nutritionally depleted from a poor diet, stressful lifestyle, previous pregnancy or from breastfeeding.
Choosing a Supplement
If you eat a consistently nutritious diet, you might be able to get away with not taking a supplement, says Aviva Jill Romm, M.D., author of "The Natural Pregnancy Book." But, prenatal vitamins provide additional insurance that you're getting all the nutrients you need for your baby's healthy brain development and overall growth. Busy schedules, a waning appetite and nausea can make it difficult to eat as well as you'd like all the time. If supplements make you queasy or constipated, try a food-based, natural supplement, suggests Romm.
Your growing baby requires folate for neural tube development, according to pediatrician Alan Greene, author of "From First Kicks to First Steps." A deficiency has been linked to brain and neural tube defects, such as spina bifida, in which there is incomplete development of the spinal cord. The neural tube forms 21 to 28 days after conception, well before you may know you're pregnant. Talk with your doctor, who may recommend that you begin taking a prenatal vitamin with folate if you're trying to conceive. Once you're pregnant, continue taking a folate supplement. Women considering pregnancy need at least 400 micrograms of folate per day; during pregnancy, you need 600 micrograms, according to Greene. Without supplements, most women get about 340 micrograms of folate daily from foods such as enriched cereals, fruit and fruit juice.
The B Vitamins
Typically, American women get about 1.4 milligrams of vitamin B6 from their diets daily, says Greene, but during pregnancy, they need at least 1.9 milligrams. The B vitamins are essential for healthy brain development and the creation of serotonin and other neurotransmitters. Vitamin B6 is found in milk, beef, organ meats, vegetables, grains, seeds, legumes and fish, but taking a supplement ensures that you're getting enough.
Most prenatal vitamin supplements don't contain fatty acids, such as omega-3, but these compounds are critical for your baby's healthy brain growth. The brain is made up of 60 percent fat, and in particular, docosahexaenoic acid, or DHA, says Greene. Your body turns omega-3 fatty acids into DHA, but if your diet is lacking, less desirable fats are substituted for building the brain. During pregnancy, you need 1.4 grams of omega-3 fatty acids per day, which can be found in fish, walnuts, canola oil and flaxseed. Talk with your doctor about taking a supplement as well.