Every pregnancy is different. But there are a few things most women can expect. An increased risk for anemia is one of them.

This condition occurs when you don’t have enough red blood cells to carry oxygen to tissues in your body. Mild anemia may make you feel exhausted, but it can become serious if it becomes too severe or is left untreated. In fact, anemia during pregnancy can lead to premature birth and low birth weight for your baby, and even maternal mortality.

Understanding more about different types of anemia, common symptoms and treatment options will help you recognize warning signs of anemia so you can avoid complications.

What causes anemia during pregnancy?

Mild anemia is common for many women during pregnancy. But it can become a serious problem that requires treatment. When you lack sufficient red blood cells to move oxygen throughout your body, it has an impact on your organs and bodily functions.

There are more than 400 kinds of anemia. There are also many different causes, but it often comes down to red blood cell production and health.

Iron-deficiency anemia

In the United States, a lack of iron stores before and during pregnancy leading to iron deficiency is the most common culprit of anemia. Between 15 and 25 percent of all pregnant women experience the condition. In this type of anemia, there are lower than normal levels of a blood product called hemoglobin when enough iron is not available.

During pregnancy, your body works harder to provide the right nourishment for your growing baby. Blood volume increases by 30 to 50 percent. This increase in blood products allows for more transportation of vital oxygen and nutrients.

Folate-deficiency anemia

Folate-deficiency anemia is another common kind of anemia during pregnancy. Women need higher levels of folate in pregnancy. A supplement called folic acid is recommended even before a woman tries to get pregnant. Folic acid is a water-soluble vitamin that helps prevent neural tube defects during pregnancy, which is why it’s a recommended supplement.

Vitamin B-12 deficiency

Vitamin B-12 is also used by the body in the production of red blood cells. Some women may have difficulty processing B-12, which can lead to a deficiency. Folate deficiency and vitamin B-12 deficiency can often be found together. A doctor will need to look at lab values to determine what type of anemia you have.

Ways to prevent common types of anemia during pregnancy

In most cases, anemia is preventable during pregnancy. Here are three ways to make sure you’re getting the necessary vitamins and minerals to keep your red blood cell levels in the right range.

1. Prenatal vitamins

Prenatal vitamins usually contain iron and folic acid. Taking a prenatal vitamin once a day is an easy way to get essential vitamins and minerals for sufficient red blood cell production.

2. Iron supplements

If you’re testing positive for low iron levels, your doctor may recommend a separate iron supplement in addition to your daily prenatal vitamin. Pregnant women need around 27 milligrams of iron daily. But depending on the type of iron or iron supplement consumed, the dose will vary. Talk to your doctor about how much you need.

You should also avoid eating foods high in calcium while taking iron supplements. Food and beverages like coffee/tea, dairy products, and egg yolks can prevent your body from properly absorbing the iron.

Antacids can also interfere with proper iron absorption. Be sure to take iron two hours before or four hours after you take antacids.

3. Proper nutrition

Most women can get sufficient amounts of iron and folic acid during pregnancy by eating the right foods. Good sources of these essentials minerals include:

  • poultry
  • fish
  • lean red meats
  • beans
  • nuts and seeds
  • dark leafy greens
  • fortified cereals
  • eggs
  • fruits like bananas and melons

Animal sources of iron are the most easily absorbed. If your iron is coming from plant sources, supplement them with something high in vitamin C, like tomato juice or oranges. This will help with absorption.

Sometimes, supplementing with iron is not enough to raise iron levels. In that case, your doctor might talk with you about other therapies.

In the worst cases, intravenous supplementation of iron or a blood transfusion may become necessary.

Risk factors for anemia

You might be at a higher risk of developing anemia during your pregnancy if you:

  • are pregnant with multiples
  • have two or more pregnancies in quick succession
  • aren’t eating enough foods rich in iron
  • experienced heavy periods before becoming pregnant
  • are routinely vomiting as a result of morning sickness

What are symptoms of anemia?

While mild cases of anemia may have no symptoms at all, moderate to severe conditions may present themselves with the following symptoms:

  • feeling excessively fatigued or weak
  • becoming pale
  • experiencing shortness of breath, heart palpitations, or chest pain
  • feeling lightheaded
  • hands and feet become cold
  • having cravings for nonfood items like dirt, clay, or cornstarch

You may experience all or none of these symptoms if you have anemia during your pregnancy. Fortunately, blood tests to screen for anemia are routine during prenatal care. You can expect to be tested early in your pregnancy, and usually once more as you move closer to your due date.

But you should speak to your doctor right away if you’re concerned about any of the symptoms listed here, or if something feels wrong.

Next steps

If you’re pregnant or trying to become pregnant, be aware of the importance of sufficient amounts of iron, folic acid, and vitamin B-12. Eat nutritious foods, and speak to your doctor if you’re experiencing symptoms of anemia.

Never attempt to diagnose yourself. Overdosing on supplements can be very dangerous. You shouldn’t take iron supplements unless your doctor tells you to. It’s important to first determine whether or not you have an iron deficiency. If you do, your doctor will be able to recommend the right dose for you.