April 15, 2008

Eating During Labor

Labor is probably not the time you will be requesting a huge steak dinner, but it is a good idea to continue to nourish your body. Not eating during labor may reduce your energy, increase your fatigue and decrease your ability to deal with stress during labor. Can you imagine laboring for 15 hours and then pushing your baby out having only ingested ice chips the whole time?

Hospitals began restricting food and fluids about 50 years ago, when women often gave birth under general anesthesia without their airway protected. The doctors were concerned that the women would vomit and aspirate while under the anesthesia. Even though it is extremely rare that general anesthesia would be used in a labor and delivery situation, this old protocol is still enforced in many hospitals.

A recent review of the research on this topic found that there is no evidence that restricting food and fluids in normal labor is beneficial. Recent research shows that eating and drinking are safe in normal labor. Based on the best evidence available, food and fluid should not be routinely restricted in labor.

“Women permitted to eat low-fat, low-residual foods during labor were no more likely than women who received only water to have labor, delivery, or neonatal complications in a randomized study conducted in the United Kingdom.

Moreover, women who ate rated their overall labor experience as significantly better than that of women who were only allowed to drink water, according to a study presented in poster form at the annual meeting of the Society for Gynecologic Investigation“.

A while back, I was reading Midwifery Today and found a short article about “The Midwife’s Pitocin”. This one midwife recommends that her clients make a bowl of oatmeal, honey and nuts during labor and graze on it when they desire. If you break down the ingredients, you will find the perfect balance of complex carbohydrates, protein and natural sugar. Imagine that you are about to run a marathon – you would surely fuel your body with healthy supportive food! I have been recommending this concoction to my doula clients. It seems to have given them some lasting stamina.

The oatmeal will probably not be welcome at the hospital, but you can try to get some in your body before you head in. If you are birthing at a birthing center or at home, you can continue to eat when you like. So what can you do if you are birthing at a hospital? First check in with your hospital and care provider and see what their guidelines are. Recently some hospitals have begun to allow clear fluids, broths and juices for low risk women. If you are restricted to ice chips, bring along a sports drink that has electrolytes and some sugar and mix that in with your ice chips. But be sure to try to avoid the overly sugary drinks as they may cause nausea.

Some women are concerned that eating during labor will cause them to vomit. But according to the same study referenced earlier, “Vomiting was not more common among women allowed to eat light foods, 18% of whom vomited once and 17% of whom vomited more than once, compared with 17% and 17% of women in the water-only cohort.” In fact, vomiting is a sign of transition and can actually help push the baby deeper down into the birth canal.

Here is a list of “light eating” that may be appealing to the laboring mom. Please note you are more likely to have a desire for food in early labor. Don’t force yourself to eat anything you don’t want to.


Whole wheat toast







Mashed potatoes





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