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Why Pregnant Women Need More Iron

Updated on May 11, 2016
An example of an iron-rich meal.
An example of an iron-rich meal.

Increased Iron Need During Pregnancy

Have you been diagnosed with anemia during your pregnancy? You're not alone! About 1 in 5 women experience some degree of anemia when they are pregnant.

Why does this happen? Well, when you're pregnant, your body needs a lot more iron than it did before you became pregnant. Iron is necessary for your body to make hemoglobin, the protein in red blood cells that carries oxygen to other cells.

When you're pregnant, your blood volume increases by about 50 percent. This means that to take care of all that hemoglobin in your blood, you will need to increase your iron intake by 50 percent, as well. This translates to a daily iron requirement of about 27 milligrams.

In addition to the increased blood supply in the pregnant woman's body, there are a number of causes of pregnancy anemia. And it seems that some women are just more prone to develop it than others.

Who Is Especially at Risk for Pregnancy-Induced Anemia?

You may be at risk for developing anemia during your pregnancy if you:

  • have "morning" sickness that makes you throw up every day all day, or at least several times a day
  • have had 2 or more pregnancies in really close proximity (say within 17 months or less)
  • are pregnant with more than one baby at a time
  • do not include enough iron in your pregnancy diet
  • are one of the lucky women whose menstrual flow before your pregnancy was especially heavy
  • do not get enough folic acid or Vitamin B12
  • have an inherited blood disorder, like sickle cell

Iron and Your Baby

The fact is: your anemia is very unlikely to hurt your baby. Your body is giving away all its iron stores to the baby first, so you are probably the only one who will suffer the consequences of being iron deficient. That is, unless your anemia is particularly severe.

In this case, you could be setting your baby up for being anemic as an infant. Other problems that can occur with the baby include preterm delivery (birth before 37 weeks gestational age) and low birth weight. Anemia during pregnancy can also, in very rare cases, lead to stillbirths or infant deaths.

How Will Anemia Affect Me?

Pregnancy-related anemia will cause you to feel more tired (as if the pregnancy itself isn't doing that enough already). It will also be harder to fight off infections if your body's iron supply is low. Anemia can also cause problems for you in delivery if you lose a lot of blood. 

These birth complications could include: dizziness, rapid heart rate, and other general health problems that will keep you in the hospital for a few extra days. You are also more likely to need a blood transfusion. And your risk for postpartum depression may also be significantly higher.

How Can I Tell if I Have Anemia?

Unless you have a really severe case of anemia, you will likely never know you have a problem until a routine prenatal exam shows a low level of iron in your blood. Here are some signs to watch out for, though:

  • extreme fatigue (since you're pregnant, it may be difficult to associate this fatigue with anemia)
  • headaches (also a pretty common pregnancy symptom)
  • dizziness (ditto)
  • weakness
  • irritability
  • chest pain
  • pale skin
  • feelings of numbness or coldness in your extremities
  • low body temperature
  • difficulty breathing
  • irregular heartbeat
  • difficulty concentrating

Again, since so many of these symptoms are similar to regular pregnancy symptoms, and since you may not even experience most of these, you should ask your doctor to check the iron level in your blood if you are concerned about pregnancy-related anemia, if he/she has not already done so.

Good Food Sources of Iron

Many pregnant women can take care of their low iron problems by just introducing more iron-rich food sources into their diet. What are some foods that have high amounts of iron?

  • meat (red meat is best, but chicken and fish are also good sources)
  • tofu (if you need a meat substitute)
  • eggs
  • green leafy vegetables (like spinach and broccoli)
  • legumes (beans or peanuts)
  • whole grain bread
  • cereal fortified with iron
  • dried fruit (raisins, dates, prunes, and apricots)
  • liver - be careful, however, if you decide to get your iron from this source because it has high levels of vitamin A (specifically retinol), which has been linked with birth defects

Be sure to drink a glass of orange juice (or eat something else that has a high Vitamin C content) along with your serving of iron-rich food. Vitamin C aids in your body's absorption of iron. And orange juice is a great source of folic acid, as well, which is another nutrient essential to your developing baby.

Iron Supplements

If your prenatal vitamin (if you can stand to keep it down) does not have enough iron to compensate for the lack or iron in your diet, your doctor may prescribe an iron pill supplement, or he/she may suggest that you buy one over the counter. You will probably be asked to take 1-2 pills a day for the duration of your pregnancy because your iron level will not be routinely checked more than twice (once at the very beginning of the pregnancy and once at about 30 weeks in).

Can't stomach traditional iron supplements? Now you don't have to worry! Spatone liquid iron supplement is a fantastic alternative. Just be sure you mix it in with some Emergen-C to mask the flavor. When it's mixed in water by itself, it has a pretty nasty metallic taste (a lot like blood) that can really turn some people off. Plus, don't forget that the extra Vitamin C will help your body better absorb the extra iron!

Be aware, though, that iron supplements have been known to cause constipation (if you weren't already experiencing that as part of your pregnancy). So, not only will you have to eat more iron, but you'll also have to include more fiber-rich foods to help things stay regular. If you know you will not be able to include enough fiber in your diet, your doctor will recommend that you get an over-the-counter laxative. There are many on the market right now. One of the best is Miralax, which is tasteless and mixes really well in water or your other favorite beverage.

The Importance of Iron During Pregnancy

Iron Is Important, But So Is Good Prenatal Care

It cannot be stressed enough that, if you are pregnant, you need to be going to an ob/gyn for regular checkups.

The blood screening during these routine checkups is the only way that many women (including myself) find out that they have an iron deficiency.

Good prenatal care is not only essential for your growing baby's health, but for your health, as well. Your ob/gyn is there to take care of both you and your baby, and if money is a problem, there are many clinics that offer prenatal care at very reasonable for low-income mothers.

Don't forget to keep all your prenatal appointments, and remember to ask lots of questions to ensure you get the answers you need for a healthier baby and a healthier you.

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