There is no shortage of advice about what to eat when pregnant, and perhaps even more about what not to eat when pregnant. But for many mamas-to-be, the key to a healthy pregnancy isn’t just about what goes into your body with a fork or spoon. While fruits, vegetables, and whole grains promote a growing baby’s health, they can only do so much. Little ones need high amounts of vitamins and minerals to grow, which can’t be fulfilled by one’s diet.

That’s where prenatal vitamins come in and can make an impact—not just for pregnant people, but for those trying to get pregnant, too. Why? The neural tube is one of the first parts of a baby to develop; with time, it becomes its brain and spinal cord. This process happens so early, though, that many people don’t know that they’re pregnant until after it’s done. But if the pregnant person doesn’t have enough of the right nutrients during that time, the neural tube may not grow well.

There Are a Lot of Prenatal Vitamins. Know the Essentials.

Prenatals can help at any stage of pregnancy, though. Even if someone doesn’t take them early on, many sources say that it’s never too late to begin. There are lots of nutrients that a baby needs to thrive, so the more that are available, the better. According to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, that includes:

  • Iron, to help the fetus receive oxygen from red blood cells
  • Vitamin A, to give the baby healthy skin and vision
  • Folic acid, to help the fetus and placenta grow while preventing brain and spine birth defects
  • Calcium, to build strong teeth and bones
  • Choline, to help the baby’s brain and spine develop

The Mayo Clinic says that prenatals should have vitamins D, C, and E; B vitamins, iodine, and zinc, plus those listed above. Take a look at the full list of vitamins and nutrients for more details. The list also states which foods contain some of the nutrients that expecting mothers need. That said, they don’t take the place of prenatal vitamins. It’s helpful to think of the two as partners, rather than as substitutions for each other. Together, they give the nutrients that a mama and her baby need.

Check The Ingredients, Not the Brand

When it comes to choosing a prenatal, some people opt for brands that require a prescription. ​​Others choose options that are over-the-counter (OTC). Those do not require a prescription. Although some may be afraid that an OTC option is less effective, research shows that it can still be a good choice. OTC vitamins may be easier to get as well.

Whether it’s prescribed or OTC, a prenatal just needs to have the right amount of certain nutrients. For each expecting mother, their doctor can provide more guidance on which prenatal is right for them. But for all expecting mothers, prenatals can play a large role in their maternal health. Unfortunately, many mamas who need them the most—such as those who report lower incomes—use them the least. Awareness of their benefits, as well as access to them, are likely the main reasons for this occurrence.

Prenatal Support to Empower Mamas

In efforts to reverse these trends, groups are working to make prenatals easier to find. Vitamin Angels, for example, provides free prenatals at Walgreens pharmacies in Chicago and clinics nationwide. (Fun fact: Walgreens is also a PowerMom partner.)

Pregnant people can also find coupons for prenatals at Drugs.com and similar websites. A person’s doctor may be helpful, too; some have prenatal samples for patients. On top of that, they may be able to prescribe the generic versions of name-brand vitamins, which often cost more.

Growing a baby isn’t easy. But the more women have access to nutrition resources, the more prepared they can be to manage their pregnancy health. The knowledge they have can be shared with other pregnant people as well, and promote healthy pregnancies on a broader scale. Since pregnant people are one of the least studied groups in research, that can have a rippling impact.

Where Research–and Your Help–Can Make an Impact

It goes without saying that while pregnancy is a special journey, it is not the same for everyone. Despite what we’ve learned to date, there is much more to uncover and relevant data is still lacking.

That’s where you can help: by signing up for the free, home-based PowerMom study. From there, you’ll be able to share your pregnancy experience with a team of researchers. If you are approved to join, you may get a free Fitbit to help you track key health metrics.

As a partner, you’ll be able to share data from your fitness devices (like sleep, activity, and heart rate). You’ll also be able to take 5-minute surveys about your pregnancy journey. What you provide may lead to learnings that benefit health outcomes for all moms. Your input could lend itself to articles like this one, and the answers they may offer for other mamas.

The power of a healthy pregnancy is in your hands. Learn more and get started on the PowerMom website today.

Elysia Cook

Elysia Cook

Elysia Cook McDermott is a copywriter and editor at Scripps Research Digital Trials Center.