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Vitamin A in pregnancy

Vitamin A in pregnancy A balancing act

SUMMARY

Vitamin A is important for your developing baby; it helps to build strong lungs, healthy eyes, and aids skin cell production. Too much, however, can be harmful. Learn which sources of this immune-enhancing nutrient to include in your pregnancy diet, and which foods and supplements to avoid to ensure a safe intake.

Vitamin A helps to support:
Normal visual development

Vitamin A helps to support:
Immune system development

What is vitamin A?

Vitamin A contributes to the development of two of the most intricate and extraordinary parts of your baby’s body – their eyes. It is also important for their immunity and skin cell production1, while helping to develop the millions of tiny air sacs, called alveoli, in your baby’s lungs. These allow oxygen to transfer into the blood, and carbon dioxide to transfer back out2.

Vitamin A is available in two forms:

  • Retinol – found in high levels in some meat and fish products, and in safe levels in dairy foods and eggs1
  • Beta-carotene – a substance in fruit and vegetables that the body can convert into vitamin A1

Is vitamin A bad for pregnancy?

Getting the right amount of vitamin A in pregnancy is a bit of a balancing act; too much can harm your developing baby and lead to birth defects1, while too little carries certain risks to you and your baby’s development3. A healthy intake will ensure your baby gets the nutritional support they need for normal development. Fortunately, this is easy to achieve by following the simple but important guidelines below.

Your body makes a safe form of vitamin A from the beta-carotene in fruit and vegetables

Why is vitamin A important for mum in pregnancy?

Due to its supporting role in the immune system, vitamin A benefits your own health throughout pregnancy4. An adequate, safe intake is important at all stages. However, your risk of deficiency is higher during the third trimester when requirements increase due to your baby’s accelerated development and increased blood volume. Your body naturally prioritises your baby’s needs, which is why you need more4.

A healthy supply of vitamin A during pregnancy builds up your baby’s natural stores in preparation for the first few months of life

Building up your baby’s stores

Vitamin A is a fat-soluble vitamin, meaning it is stored in the liver and fat cells of the body5. A healthy supply of vitamin A during pregnancy builds up your baby’s natural stores in preparation for the first few months of life6.

A low level of vitamin A can affect your baby’s immune function after birth, leaving them more susceptible to infection and illness6.

Getting the balance right

Your Reference Nutrient Intake (RNI – the amount considered to be enough to meet most people’s needs) of vitamin A in pregnancy is slightly higher than normal, at 100mcg per day7. Once you start breastfeeding, your needs will increase further, to 350mcg per day7.

Because it is found in dairy foods and some fruit and vegetables, most people get all the vitamin A they need from a well-balanced diet1.

Certain foods that are high in vitamin A, such as liver and liver pâté, are on the list of foods to avoid in pregnancy. As long as you avoid these foods, your intake should fall within safe levels and not pose any risks to your baby’s development. Some non-pregnancy supplements also contain high levels of vitamin A, such as cod liver oil, which should be avoided8.

Sources of retinol (the animal-based form of vitamin A) include1:

  • Cheese
  • Fortified spreads
  • Yogurt
  • Eggs

Your body will convert the beta-carotene that gives certain fruit and vegetables their orange colour into vitamin A. Beta-carotene can be found in:

  • Carrots
  • Oranges
  • Sweet potatoes
  • Apricots

Next Steps

Maintain a healthy intake of vitamin A by:

  • Making sure any supplements you take don’t contain vitamin A
  • Avoiding liver or liver products like pâté
  • Including plenty of orange-coloured fruit and vegetables as a part of a healthy balanced diet, as well as dairy foods and eggs

View references

Hide references

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1. NHS UK. Vitamin A [Online]. 2012. Available at: www.nhs.uk/Conditions/vitamins-minerals/Pages/Vitamin-A.aspx [Accessed June 2014]

2. Checkley W et al. Maternal vitamin A supplementation and lung function in offspring. N Engl J Med 2010;362(19):1784-1794.

3. WHO. Micronutrient deficiencies [Online]. Available at: www.who.int/nutrition/topics/vad/en/ [Accessed June 2014]

4. Van den Broek, N et al. Vitamin A supplementation during pregnancy for maternal and newborn outcomes. Cochrane Database Syst Rev 11, 2010.

5. NHS UK. Vitamins and minerals [Online]. 2012. Available at: www.nhs.uk/Conditions/vitamins-minerals/Pages/vitamins-minerals.aspx [Accessed June 2014]

6. Azaïs-Braesco V, Pascal G. Vitamin A in pregnancy: requirements and safety limits. Am J Clin Nutr 2000;71(5):1325-1333.

7. Department of Health. Dietary Reference Values for Food Energy and Nutrients for the United Kingdom No. 41. London: HMSO, 1991.

8. NHS UK. Can I take cod liver oil supplements when I’m pregnant? [Online]. 2014. Available at: www.nhs.uk/chq/Pages/1757.aspx?CategoryID=54&SubCategoryID=129 [Accessed June 2014]

Last reviewed: 18th August 2016
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