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Vitamin D for Mom and Baby

Pregnant woman in white dress in sunshine.
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Written by Guggie Daly

We’ve all seen the numerous headlines extolling the benefits of getting enough of this vitamin. But, are you aware of the particular necessity of vitamin D during pregnancy? Do you know that maternal levels dictate how much is transferred to your baby by breastfeeding?

The D in a Delightful Pregnancy

Based on a variety of studies the past few years, vitamin D is quickly becoming one of the most important factors in supporting a healthy pregnancy. Researchers first learned that to overcome our sedentary lifestyles, migration to colder climates, and sun-protection methods, women required much more than the very low RDA.

In the first study of its kind to actually experimentally work with vitamin D during pregnancy, researchers gave women 400, 2,000, or 4,000 units of vitamin D daily and found that the women who took 4,000 units daily had the fewest cases of preterm labor, premature infants, and infection.

Another pregnancy complication called pre-eclampsia, which represents a potential for severe harm to the mother and often can only be “treated” by immediately delivering the baby, has been studied multiple times over the years. Each study shows that low vitamin D levels correspond with severity and incidence of pre-eclampsia. The latest study released in January of this year, learned that women with sufficient vitamin D levels had a 40% reduction in severe pre-eclampsia.

But it’s not all about the mothers. Other promising studies show intense support for the physical and mental development of the fetus as well. This is because the fetus, completely reliant on maternal blood levels of vitamin D, uses this vitamin in a variety of important processes such as regulating the metabolism of neurotrophic factors and neurotoxins, signaling neuronal differentiation, and protecting the brain from inflammation. It’s not surprising, then, that scientists are finding vitamin D levels during pregnancy seem to correspond with IQ levels later in life.

Researchers wanted to see how vitamin D influences physical health in the womb, too. They studied 678 pregnant women, analyzing their vitamin D levels at the end of pregnancy. They then tracked the development of their children by measuring grip strength and muscle mass. They concluded that children exposed to higher levels of D were stronger.

Interestingly, scientists also note that low level vitamin D might play a role in autism development prenatally. They point to increased autism prevalence in regions of low sun exposure and that autism incidence has “been linked to maternal vitamin D insufficiency in dark-skinned mothers living in northern latitudes.”

Basically, when you turn to the medical literature, it becomes clear that getting enough vitamin D early on during pregnancy is important for a healthy pregnancy and for a healthy baby. The previous recommendations were abysmally low, based on studies finding better outcomes at 4,000 units daily. If you are unsure at all about how much to take or what your needs are, a quick finger poke at the doctor’s office can solve the mystery. Women who want to conceive should also consider checking their levels and adjusting them before conception to ensure optimal levels are available, since severe deficiency can take a longer time to correct and might indicate other health conditions that would be better solved before pregnancy.

The D in Your Breastmilk

It’s quickly becoming a common practice for pediatricians to recommend giving your infant or toddler a vitamin D supplement. Some even suggest putting liquid D drops onto your breast so that your infant will be exposed while breastfeeding. If your infant is deficient in vitamin D levels, oral supplementation can be a wise step to correct blood serum levels.

But, mothers might also find it helpful to know that adjusting maternal levels does influence levels in breastmilk. If you have enough, your body will transfer it to the baby through your breastmilk. Those who are concerned about D levels but not severely deficient might find it healthier and simpler to supplement themselves and watch to see if their infants receive the vitamin through their milk.

As with pregnancy, researchers were woefully low in their estimation of dosages required during lactation. For example, researchers studied oral supplementation for infants versus maternal supplementation passing through the milk and concluded that maternal intake elevated the infant levels, too. Subsequent studies discovered similar differences in serum levels, with adequate intake corresponding to increased maternal supplementation.

It’s clear, then, that if sun exposure is unavailable or unsafe for your baby, you can directly influence your baby’s blood levels of this vitamin by supplementing yourself with high enough dosages. Again, testing for yourself and your baby is wisest so that you can develop a customized plan.

The D in Postpartum Depression

Besides being helpful during pregnancy and breastfeeding, another reason to pay attention to this vitamin is its potential role in balancing neurochemistry and possibly preventing depression. This vitamin influences the amount of chemicals in the brain called monoamines. You might recognize monoamines by their specific names such as dopamine, adrenaline, and serotonin. See the puzzle now? Low vitamin D levels might make it harder for you to recover after birth, increasing the baby blues and your risk of developing postpartum depression. The science is still out on conclusively connecting levels to specific chemistry balance in the brain, so low levels are not the scary cause of depression symptoms, but they could be making it harder to cope and harder to heal.

Additionally, thyroid health and balance are important in the postpartum recovery period and vitamin D plays a role in managing thyroid hormones, specifically, TH1 and TH2 cells by affecting TH3 cells. Vitamin D levels are also associated with autoimmune thyroid issues. If you suspect an autoimmune flare such as Hashimoto’s after your pregnancy, it could also indicate low levels of vitamin D.

Wherever you are on the childbearing journey, vitamin D has something to offer for you. When trying to conceive, already pregnant, breastfeeding or healing after birth, be sure to research the role of vitamin D deficiency in common complaints or conditions related to the childbearing years. It could be the D in your diagnosis.

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Guggie Daly