All women need calcium to protect their bones. In pregnancy, calcium intake is particularly important. A fetus’s growing skeleton requires a lot of calcium, and the baby takes its necessary nutrients from its mother, particularly during the last trimester. If the mother doesn’t get enough calcium from her diet or from supplements, this can create health problems and potentially put her bones at risk.
Fortunately, most women are able to avoid bone problems during pregnancy. However, this is not necessarily because they are getting as much calcium as they should. Luckily for women, pregnancy increases the body’s ability to absorb calcium, especially during the final 20 weeks—the time when the baby needs the most calcium for growth. Also, the extra estrogen produced during pregnancy helps protect a woman’s bones. But calcium is important for more than just the bones.
Ensuring an adequate intake of calcium during pregnancy can help women avoid preeclampsia. If preeclampsia develops, a woman develops high blood pressure and excess protein in the urine late in her pregnancy. Untreated, preeclampsia decreases blood flow to the fetus, which can result in preterm birth and/or low birth weight. It also can cause the placenta to prematurely separate from the uterine wall. Further complications include the HELLP syndrome and eclampsia, which can lead to permanent damage to the mother. The only cure for preeclampsia is birthing the baby.
The best solution seems to be preventing preeclampsia in the first place, and adequate calcium consumption can help. Pregnant women over age 24 should consume the U.S. Recommended Daily Allowance of 1200 mg/day of calcium. Pregnant women under age 24 need an additional 300 mg/day, since they are still building their own bone mass as well as that of their baby.
Calcium can be consumed through the diet, especially through the intake of at least four servings of dairy products such as milk, cheese and yogurt. (Ice cream, anyone?) Green vegetables like spinach and broccoli are high in calcium, as are shrimp, sardines, tofu, dried beans and peas.
Sometimes getting enough calcium through the diet presents a problem. At the same time, women should be careful not to exceed 2500 mg/day of calcium through diet and supplements. A health care provider can recommend an appropriate calcium supplement that will provide enough but not too much calcium.
With an adequate and appropriate intake of calcium throughout pregnancy, mothers can help protect their own health as well as that of their babies.
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Reviewed August 9, 2011
by Michele Blacksberg R.N.
Edited by Jody Smith