Eating and Drinking During Labor

Pregnant woman eating peanut butter on toast in hospital delivery room
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Did you know that eating during labor is still a point of debate among healthcare providers, hospitals, and birthing centers? The main reason why so many institutions continue to enforce a "no eating" policy for pregnant people in labor is because of the possibility of aspiration while under anesthesia, which first became a concern in the 1940s. New studies about the topic, however, state that low-risk pregnant people may experience myriad benefits if able to drink and eat while in the process of birthing a baby.

Research suggests that who can and can't eat during labor can be determined on a case-by-case basis rather than enforcing a blanket policy. Those laboring people who are able to get oral nutrition should still know the best food and drink guidelines available.

Why You Can't Eat During Labor

The idea that you should not eat during labor is rooted in a time when the use of general anesthesia during delivery was common practice. In a 1946 study, Dr. Curtis Mendelson reviewed data from more than 44,000 pregnancies at a New York hospital. He closely examined 66 of these cases and hypothesized there was a risk for pneumonia if stomach contents were aspirated, or breathed, into the pregnant person's lungs following general anesthesia.

After conducting tests on rabbits, Mendelson concluded that food aspiration during delivery would not actually lead to pneumonia. He did determine that by avoiding food and drink during labor, you could reduce stomach volume, thereby decreasing the risk of problems from stomach acid aspiration while under general anesthesia. Aspiration of stomach acids, also known as chemical pneumonitis, can harm the lungs. When such aspiration occurs after anesthesia, it is also referred to as Mendelson's syndrome.

When Should I Stop Eating During Labor?

Most hospitals will allow you to consume clear liquids during early labor (when contractions are building) and have policies in place that enable intake of ice chips or sips of fluid. But some birthing centers forbid drinking or eating at all once a pregnant person is in their care for delivery.

Benefits of Eating During Labor

The use of general anesthesia is no longer common practice during vaginal delivery. The incidence of use is about 5% for obstetric patients. Instead, general anesthesia has been replaced with regional pain management through neuraxial analgesiac techniques like spinal epidural injection.

If you elect to use an epidural for pain management during labor, it will numb you from your belly button down through your legs. Because a spinal injection enables you to remain awake and conscious, with the top part of your body not under anesthesia, aspiration is not a concern.

General anesthesia may still be used for a Cesarean delivery, which comes with its own set of surgical rules if it is planned or scheduled ahead of spontaneous labor. In this case, your doctor may ask you to refrain from eating solid foods or drinking liquids for a specific time frame prior to your surgery because there is still a risk for aspiration.

Without the risk of aspiration, the question of whether or not you should drink and/or eat during labor once again becomes prevalent. Researchers have begun to explore this question and whether there are benefits to consuming liquids or solids when giving birth.

Hydration

The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) notes that low-risk pregnant people in labor should be permitted to drink clear liquids. During labor, there is the possibility of becoming dehydrated and requiring intravenous (IV) hydration. But many laboring people prefer to avoid unnecessary IVs as they can restrict movement. If you're able to take in fluids and maintain hydration orally, the need for an IV could be prevented altogether.

Energy

A person in labor uses a great deal of energy in order to give birth. Being able to consume extra calories during labor could give you the extra boost you need to sustain yourself through the arduous work of coping with contractions and eventually pushing.

Stress Reduction

Although it may change as the process progresses, there are pregnant people who prefer to eat and drink while in labor. Studies have shown that restrictions on consumption can lead to increased stress in such cases. For some, eating and drinking can increase comfort during labor.

Shorter Labor

Researchers that compared fluid and food intake among thousands of laboring people found that fewer restrictions translated to shorter deliveries. This same study also stated that there was no increase in vomiting due to eating or drinking during labor.

What to Eat During Labor

People with low-risk pregnancies who are allowed to eat and/or drink during labor will still find there are recommendations from which they could benefit. It is possible that nausea could set in for you as labor progresses, so you generally want to keep food and drink intake light.

At Home

If you are still at home (or having a home birth) and in early labor, choose foods that are easy to digest without excessive spice or fat. There are no rules to be enforced, but some tips include:

  • Consume complex carbohydrates for energy purposes. Turn to options like brown rice, multigrain crackers or bread, whole wheat pasta, noodles in soup, or oatmeal.
  • Frozen fruit, like berries, grapes, etc., may provide a cool treat.
  • Pick proteins to maintain energy levels, too. Consider nut butters, Greek yogurt, cheese, protein shakes, or smoothies with protein.

At the Hospital or Birthing Center

Upon arrival at your hospital or birthing center, you may find there are policies in place for a recommended diet to follow. This could include limiting intake to options like:

  • Clear broth
  • Cooked fruits
  • Crisp toast
  • Fruit juice
  • Lightly cooked eggs
  • Plain biscuits
  • Tea

If you are able to bring and consume your own food, think about easy-to-digest energy sources and simple carbs. Things like honey sticks or "energy gels" used by marathon runners can be great choices, even while you're pushing. It's important to keep in mind that anything you have at this point should be easy to digest.

Water, clear liquids, and ice chips may be all that you are allowed to consume in later labor, but doing so is still suggested. Aim to take frequent small sips between contractions to maintain hydration.

A Word From Verywell

Ask your healthcare provider and chosen birthplace ahead of time about their food and drink policies so you're not surprised when you're in labor. If their policies do not reflect current medical studies, which suggest low-risk pregnant people can eat and drink in labor, you may want to share the information with them and see if they will go along with your birth plan.

At centers that are strict with their rules, don't try to sneak in any contraband for consumption. It is important that your provider is aware of what's in your stomach in case additional interventions are needed.

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