While you are pregnant, your baby is absorbing vitamins and minerals, not just to grow within the womb, but also to stock up for those first six months after the birth. But you also need extra supplies of these nutrients for yourself, to cope with the physical changes of pregnancy and then the exhausting early months of motherhood.
Vitamin B12 is one of the most essential vitamins for mother and baby, not only helping the baby develop physically, but also protecting the mother from feelings of depression.
Who is at risk?
As Vitamin B12 can only be sourced from animal products, such as meat, eggs and dairy food, it is common for vegetarians or vegans to become deficient. People with gastro-intestinal disorders such as Crohns Disease can also have difficulty processing Vitamin B12. So if you are pregnant or breast-feeding, and your diet is low in animal-sourced food, make sure you take B12 supplements such as tablets or injections.
Why Babies Need B12
If you are B12-deficient during pregnancy, your baby is at greater risk of developing neural tube defects such as spina bifida. Another major risk may remain invisible for the first few months after birth. Babies are born with a supply of Vitamin B12 to help them grow and develop during their first months of life, although they will also ingest extra B12 from breast milk or formula. However, if the mother is deficient during pregnancy, the baby will be born without sufficient B12. There is no way of recognising a newborn baby is B12-deficient without a blood test, but unless the deficiency is corrected, the baby will become "failure to thrive".
A "Failure to Thrive" baby will seem lethargic and unresponsive, and will not grow or gain weight at the correct rate. If the baby's head circumference does not increase, this can be a good indication that Failure to Thrive is caused by a lack of Vitamin B12.
Breast milk and B12
A B12 deficiency is a rare example of when breast milk is not best. If the mother is still deficient after the birth, her breast milk will be low in Vitamin B12, so a breast-fed baby won't receive extra supplies. As an added complication, deficient babies who start out on breast milk will have an aversion to drinking from bottles. This is probably because a B12 deficiency causes tenderness around the tongue and throat, so babies don't want unfamiliar objects in their mouth. B12-deficient babies often also develop a gag reflex, vomiting when offered a bottle teat or spoon. This can set up a highly distressing cycle for mothers, who are chained to feeding a Failure to Thrive baby who refuses everything except breast milk.
After a series of B12 injections, your lethargic, non-responsive infant will transform into a cheerful, wriggling baby, although it might take longer to teach the baby not to gag at bottles.
B12 and the Black Dog
A Vitamin B12 deficiency in adults has been associated with depression. Studies have shown that between 10 and 30% of patients with depression will have a Vitamin B12 deficiency, while other patients find their depressive symptoms are relieved by extra B12. This is important to remember if you are vegetarian or vegan, particularly while you are pregnant or breastfeeding. You don't want those precious early months with your beautiful baby clouded by a B12 deficiency!