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Addressing anemia during pregnancy

Last Modified: June 10, 2024

Women & Children


The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that globally, 37% of pregnant women are affected by anemia. Learn to recognize the symptoms and address the condition so that you can have a healthy pregnancy and the best outcome on delivery day.

What is anemia and what causes it during pregnancy?

Anemia means your red blood cell level is low. Red blood cells are crucial, as they carry oxygen from your lungs to the rest of your body

Anemia can occur when you're pregnant because your body is working hard to make more blood to help your baby grow. Anemia during a healthy pregnancy is common and can be caused by other problems, such as insufficient iron, folic acid or vitamin B12.

What are the symptoms of anemia during pregnancy?

Anemia can present as any of the following:

  • Feeling dizzy
  • Feeling tired
  • Feeling weak
  • The sensation your heart pounding
  • Feeling short of breath
  • Difficulty focusing or thinking clearly
  • Cravings for nonfood items such as dirt, ashes, clay or chalk

Craving nonfood items can indicate that you don't have enough iron in your blood (iron deficiency anemia).

How is anemia during pregnancy diagnosed?

Your doctor will take some of your blood to test during routine prenatal visits. The test may include a complete blood count (CBC) to examine your red blood cells.

How is anemia during pregnancy treated?

Each type of anemia is treated differently. Eating iron-rich foods such as red meat, poultry, eggs, beans, raisins, whole-grain bread, fortified cereals and leafy green vegetables can help. You may also need to take iron pills in addition to prenatal vitamins that include folic acid or vitamin B12.

Learn more about getting through the first trimester of pregnancy.

How can you care for yourself when you have anemia during pregnancy?

  • If your doctor recommends a prenatal vitamin or iron supplement, take it as directed. Call your doctor if you think you have a problem with your supplements.
  • If your doctor tells you to take iron pills:
    • Try to take the pills on an empty stomach–about 1 hour before or 2 hours after meals. Some women need to take iron with food to avoid an upset stomach.
    • Don’t take antacids, or drink milk or caffeine drinks (such as coffee, tea or soda) at the same time or within 2 hours of the time you take your iron. They can keep your body from absorbing the iron well.
    • Be sure to drink plenty of fluids and include fruits, vegetables and fiber daily. This may help with stomach problems caused by iron pills, which include heartburn, nausea, diarrhea, constipation and cramps.
    • Don’t stop taking iron pills without talking to your doctor first. It will take several months for your body to build up a store of iron. Call your doctor if you think you are having a problem with your iron pills.
    • If you miss a pill, don’t take a double dose of iron.
    • Keep iron pills out of the reach of small children. An overdose of iron can be very dangerous. (Read more on medication safety here.)
  • Eat foods rich in iron. These include red meat, poultry, eggs, beans, raisins, whole-grain bread, fortified cereals and leafy green vegetables.
  • Talk to your doctor about any cravings for ice or nonfood items such as dirt, ashes, clay, or chalk. These cravings can be a sign of iron deficiency anemia.
  • Vitamin C may help your body absorb iron. Some people take their iron pills with a glass of orange juice or some other food high in vitamin C.

If you're pregnant or thinking of becoming pregnant and would like to learn more about resources available for mothers in your area, contact an OB nurse navigator.















Copyrighted material adapted with permission from Healthwise, Incorporated. This information does not replace the advice of a doctor.

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