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Eating during labor is still a topic of debate among birthing centers, hospitals, and healthcare providers. The main reason why there are so many conflicts regarding eating during labor is because of possible aspiration while under anesthesia. Most medical institutions or professionals enforced a “no eating” policy for women in labor during the 1940s.
However, newer studies about the conflict state that low-risk pregnant women might be able to experience myriad benefits if able to eat and drink during childbirth. According to research on the topic, deciding who can or cannot eat during labor depends on the individual. Women who are administered oral nutrition should still know the best drinks and foods available.
Why Can’t You Eat During Labor?
The idea that laboring women should not eat during childbirth is rooted in a time when the use of general anesthesia during childbirth was a common practice. In 1946, a study by Dr. Curtis Mendelson examined 66 of 44,000 pregnancies at a New York hospital. His hypothesis stated that there was a higher risk of pneumonia if the contents of the stomach were breathed or aspired into the pregnant woman’s lungs following general anesthesia.
Mendelson’s tests on rabbits concluded that,
- Food aspiration during labor will not lead to pneumonia.
- Avoiding drinks and food during childbirth can reduce the stomach volume.
- This in turn will decrease the risk of stomach acid aspiration under general anesthesia.
Chemical pneumonitis, also called stomach acid aspiration, is dangerous to the lungs and if it occurs after anesthesia, it is referred to as Mendelson’s syndrome.
When Should You Stop Eating During Labor?
Most birthing centers or hospitals will allow you to have clear fluids when contractions are just beginning (i.e., during early labor). They have policies that allow you to drink sips of fluids or eat ice chips. However, some birthing centers forbid eating or drinking at all once a pregnant woman is in their care for childbirth.
What are The Benefits of Eating During Labor?
General anesthesia is no longer in use for vaginal delivery these days. About 5% of obstetric patients are administered general anesthesia which has also been replaced with regional pain management through neuraxial analgesic techniques like spinal epidural injections.
If you are going for an epidural to manage pain during childbirth, it will probably numb you below your belly button through your legs. A spinal injection will keep you conscious and awake. This way, the top of your body is not under anesthesia and you are not at any risk of aspiration.
For a Cesarean delivery, however, general anesthesia is still used in scheduled or planned labor. In this case, you will have to avoid drinking liquids or eating solids for a specific period before your surgery as there is a high risk of aspiration.
With no risk of aspiration, the question “why can’t you eat during labor?” again becomes a topic of conflict. Researchers are widely exploring the answers to this question and are coming up with the benefits of consuming solids or liquids during delivery. Here are some of those benefits:
The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) says that women with low-risk pregnancies should be allowed to drink clear fluids. During childbirth, dehydration is a common occurrence that requires intravenous hydration. However, many women under labor refuse IVs as they restrict movement. If you can take liquids and remain hydrated orally then there is no need for IV hydration.
Women in labor need a great deal of energy to push themselves into giving birth. Some extra calories will boost their energy to sustain themselves through the arduous work of coping with painful contractions and eventually pushing.
- Reduced Stress
Some women prefer to drink and eat during labor although it may change as childbirth progresses. Studies have shown that if they are restricted from consuming what they want, it can lead to increased levels of stress. For some, drinking and eating can bring comfort during labor contractions.
- Shorter Labor
Research that compared food and fluid intake among laboring women found that few restrictions meant shorter deliveries. This same study found that food or drinks did not increase vomiting during labor.
Eating During Labor: What Should You Eat During Labor?
Women with low-risk pregnancies who have been allowed to eat and drink during labor can still find beneficial recommendations. Labor can induce nausea in your body as it progresses so keep your food or drink intake low. Here’s what to do if you are home or at the hospital:
If you have opted for a home birth and are in early labor, you need to choose foods that have no excess fat or spice and are super easy to digest. There are no hard and fast rules as to what you should eat but here are some tips:
- Pick proteins so that you can help manage your energy levels such as smoothies with protein, protein shakes, cheese, Greek yogurt, or nut butter.
- Go for frozen fruits like grapes, berries, etc as they may provide a cool treat.
- Consume complex carbohydrates to gain energy such as oatmeal, noodles in soup, whole wheat pasta, bread, multigrain crackers, or brown rice.
At the Birthing Center or Hospital
Upon arrival at your birthing center or hospital, you may find that there are policies at the place that recommend certain diets for laboring women. This diet could include:
- Plain biscuits
- Lightly cooked eggs
- Fruit juice
- Crisp toast
- Cooked fruits
- Clear broth
If possible bring your own food and drink and go for simple carbs and easy-to-digest items. Think like energy gels or honey sticks used by marathon runners are great choices even while you have begun pushing. Keep in mind that anything you consume at this point must be easily digestible.
Clear fluids, water, and ice chips may be all that you will be allowed to consume in later labor. Aim to have frequent sips of fluids between contractions to remain hydrated.
Closing Thoughts: Why Can’t You Eat During Labor?
Ask your doctor and the chosen hospital or birthplace about their drink and food policies ahead of time so you are not taken by surprise when you are in labor. If their policies fail to reflect current studies on “can you eat during labor?”, you may want to share the information with them and check if they agree to go along with your plan.
Current research answers the question “why can’t you eat during labor?” by disagreeing that drinking or eating may be allowed for low-risk pregnant women who are not undergoing C-sections. If centers won’t budge with their strict rules, do not try to sneak in any contraband, instead opt for another center. Your healthcare provider must be aware of what’s in your tummy in case they need to administer any intervention.