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February 2, 2021
By Emeline Mugisha, M.S.N., M.P.H., R.N
To help keep moms and babies healthy, the nutrition guidelines for pregnant women and women planning for pregnancy include daily prenatal supplements. But what about after birth? While there are no specific supplement recommendations for postpartum moms and very few studies on this topic, many prenatal vitamins and other nutrients remain essential after delivery. As with pregnancy, a healthy diet alone may not support all the nutritional needs for moms who are breastfeeding and all moms who are healing while caring for a newborn.
Supplements are pills or other products that you can take by mouth to add to (or “supplement”) the nutrients you get through food. Nutrients are ingredients, such as vitamins and minerals, that our bodies need to work, survive, and grow. Eating healthy foods is the best way to get all these nutrients. However, during and after pregnancy your body’s need for certain nutrients increases. So, it’s often necessary to change what you eat and also take a supplement.
Prenatal supplements (also known as “prenatal vitamins”) help supply your body with extra amounts of specific nutrients needed to keep you and your baby healthy before and during pregnancy. Three of these key nutrients include folic acid, iron, and calcium.
Postpartum supplements (also known as “postnatal vitamins”) help support the nutritional needs of women after giving birth. Both prenatal and postpartum supplements may contain different combinations and amounts of nutrients depending on the brand. To compare supplements, it’s necessary to look at the nutrient levels on the Nutrition Facts section of the product.
Some postpartum supplements are very similar to prenatal supplements while others are not.
Regardless of the type, it’s important to first consult a health care provider before beginning a supplement. Your provider may recommend specific doses of nutrients that meet your unique needs based on what you eat and health factors. For example, if you don’t eat enough foods that have high amounts of omega-3 fatty acids, they may suggest taking a supplement.
Related: The 6 most important nutrients your postpartum body needs
Some nutrients are only available in breastmilk if your regular diet contains enough. If you are breastfeeding, taking supplements can increase levels of certain nutrients in your body so that your baby receives the right amounts through breastmilk. Examples of essential nutrients for women who are breastfeeding include DHA, choline, vitamin A, and vitamin D.
Both DHA and choline supplementation help support your baby’s brain growth and health. Supplementation with vitamin A helps decrease the risk of chronic lung problems among pre-term babies and babies with an extremely low birth weight. Finally, studies show that vitamin D supplementation decreases the risk of rickets, a bone disease that may affect your baby.
Other than the recommendations for breastfeeding, limited research is available on the potential benefits of supplements for all postpartum women. However, studies suggest that low amounts of certain nutrients, such as omega-3 fatty acids, may contribute to postpartum depression (PPD) symptoms in some women. Omega-3 fatty acids are a type of fat found naturally in certain fish and other seafood. While there’s no conclusive evidence that omega-3 supplementation can improve PPD, a few studies suggest a possible link.
Related: 7 ways to fight postpartum depression
Additionally, research shows that low iron levels may contribute to hair loss among women in their reproductive years and iron supplements are a potential treatment.
Related: Postpartum Hair Loss: What to Expect
In general, it’s best to only take the recommended daily dose of any supplement. However, there isn’t much evidence of serious side effects from taking prenatal supplements after birth, even in large doses. For example, studies show that there is little to no risk to moms who take high doses of certain vitamins (such as thiamin, riboflavin, vitamin B12, and vitamin C).
When side effects do occur from taking too much of certain nutrients (such as iron and niacin), they are usually mild and short-term. Additionally, studies suggest that taking iron supplements with food reduces or eliminates the risk of side effects such as nausea and vomiting.
If you experience side effects from supplements your provider recommends for you, tell your provider so they can help you decide what’s safest for you and your baby.
Copp, K., DeFranco, E. A., Kleiman, J., Rogers, L. K., Morrow, A. L., & Valentine, C. J. (2018). Nutrition support team (NST) guide to maternal diet for the human-milk-fed infant. Nutrition in Clinical Practice, 33(5), 687–693. https://doi.org/10.1002/ncp.10071
França, K., Rodrigues, T.S., Ledon, J., Savas, J., & Chacon, A. (2013). Comprehensive overview and treatment update on hair loss. Journal of Cosmetics, Dermatological Sciences and Applications, 3(3A), 1-8. https://doi.org/10.4236/jcdsa.2013.33A1001.
Gernand, A. D. (2019). The upper level: examining the risk of excess micronutrient intake in pregnancy from antenatal supplements. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1444(1), 22–34. https://doi.org/10.1111/nyas.14103
Zhang, M., Zou, Y., Li, S., Wang, L., Sun, Y., Shi, L., Lu, L., Bao, Y., & Li, S. (2020). The efficacy and safety of omega-3 fatty acids on depressive symptoms in perinatal women: a meta-analysis of randomized placebo-controlled trials. Translational Psychiatry 10(193). https://www.nature.com/articles/s41398-020-00886-3
Emeline Mugisha, M.S.N., M.P.H., R.N. - Emeline Mugisha is an award-winning, master's-prepared nurse with over a decade of experience in community/public health and clinical health services at the field and management levels. She has co-authored two professional manuscripts in Women's Health Issues and the Journal of Midwifery and Women's Health. She has an M.S. in Public Health Nursing and an M.P.H. from Johns Hopkins University.
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