Pre-Pregnancy Vitamins: Too Good To Be True?

woman holding vitamin

By Dr. Kirsten Small

If you as a woman trying for a pregnancy, or a pregnant woman, could take a tablet each day that would help to ensure that your baby had a reduced risk of birth defects and had a lower chance of developing cancer in childhood, and it had almost no risks for you, you would do it, right? But surely that’s impossible. Nothing could be that easy….

Multivitamin Effects During Pregnancy

Since the early 1990’s there has been much published medical research on the benefits of using multivitamins prior and during a woman’s pregnancy to improve her chances of having a healthy baby. Folate (also called folic acid or Vitamin B9) in particular has been shown to reduce the risk of a group of abnormalities called neural tube defects. Neural tube defects are due to the failure of the spinal cord or brain and the tissues that surround it to close the skin over the spine or the brain. This causes the abnormalities of anencephaly and spina bifida.

Anencephaly is lethal to the affected child, generally soon after birth. Spina bifida can affect a child in different ways depending on where the spinal abnormality has occurred. Common problems are an inability to move the legs and lack of control of the bladder and bowel.

Folate in a dose of at least 400 micrograms daily, starting one month before pregnancy and continuing until at least 12 weeks of pregnancy reduces the risk of neural tube defects by up to 50%. Getting this message out to the public has taken some time, but has generally been successful in Australia.

Pregnancy Multivitamin Research Trial Results

Many women will choose to take a multivitamin of which folate is but one component. Three recent research trials have shown additional benefits to women who take a pregnancy multivitamin that contains folate.

The first of these was published in January this year by the authoritative British Medical Journal. Women who took folate either on its own or in a multivitamin had 30% less chance of having a baby with a cleft lip and/or palate. While these are not life threatening conditions, they are disfiguring and need corrective surgery to ensure that the child can feed and speak normally.

In April, this was followed by a report from the New England Journal of Medicine about a research trial conducted in Africa. They found an 18% reduction in babies being born with a low birth weight in women who used a pregnancy multivitamin.

The most recent of the three trials was published in May in the journal “Clinical Pharmacology and Therapeutics”. This research was conducted in Canada and has shown that the children of women who took a multivitamin containing folate during pregnancy had a reduced risk of several of the common childhood cancers. The risk reduction for brain tumours was 18%, for neuroblastoma it was 47% and there were 36% fewer cases of leukaemia.

Pregnancy Multivitamin Side Effects

Taken in the correct dose (one daily) there are almost no side effects associated with the use of pregnancy multivitamins. There are a number of varieties on the market at present. The recent research has suggested that the particular brand isn’’t important, as a variety of different products were used in the trials, and all showed benefit.

It is recommended that for the best effect, the supplements begin at least one month prior to pregnancy. Starting at the same time as contraception is stopped seems to be the best way to ensure that this happens, given that no one knows how long it will take you to get pregnant. Even if a woman is already pregnant there is still the potential for multivitamins to be helpful. They should be continued throughout the pregnancy and during breastfeeding.

To good to be true? Too good to miss out on!

For further advice on multivitamins, call our office on 1300 337 845 (1300 FERTILTIY).