Expert Advice

Eating and Drinking During Labor

By SP Turgon

For years, women have been told that eating and drinking during labor will just make them vomit, make labor longer, or worse. But that restriction is starting to become an outdated maternity practice. New research shows that eating and drinking helps women during labor. And some hospitals have already changed their policy to allow this choice.

For most hospitals there are two main factors:

  1. Being low-risk
  2. Having a single baby instead of multiples.

As you plan your birth, ask your care provider about their policy regarding intake of food during long labor hours. Talking with your hospital, too, will tell you whether you can include eating and drinking during labor in your birth plan.

Most midwives understand the importance of keeping up your strength, and allow women to eat or drink at will.

According to Evidence-Based Birth, a recent review of 10 research trials[1] found significant benefits in eating and drinking. Those low-risk women with single babies who ate and drank at will had shorter labors than comparable women who weren’t allowed anything by mouth.

Why does eating and drinking matter?

 Labor is as demanding as running marathon. Would you run a marathon without ever drinking? Or eating?

Your uterus is an organ largely made of muscle tissue. By weight, it is the largest muscle in your body. And muscles need food to work hard for hours.

When we go too long without eating or drinking, we suffer from low blood sugar that makes us weak, fuzzy-thinking, irritable, or even unsure.

Consider this: first time labors are often at least eight hours (sometimes more).

Throughout all that time your uterus contracts hard to push baby through the birth canal. It only makes sense that it needs food or drink to keep working well.

A study[2] done in Iran showed that restricting fluids caused women stress and made labor harder. And another[3] found that women “felt out of energy,” “had no more strength,” and “felt hungry from going so long without eating.”

Eating and drinking during labor is only one option to include in your birth plan

So what’s the reason for the restriction?

 Back in the 1940s most women received general anesthetics or a morphine-induced “Twilight Sleep” for labor. A doctor found that a few (66 out of 44,000+) who had eaten or drank after getting these died from aspiration. So he concluded that restricting “nothing by mouth (NPO)” would prevent that, and it became a standard hospital practice.

But modern techniques are more sophisticated, the amount used is less, and the dosage is more precise.

Since 2007 the United Kingdom (UK) has allowed low-risk women to eat and drink throughout labor. They found that light meals and drinks for low-risk women help both labor and maternal satisfaction with their birth process.

More and more major health care organizations agree with the UK. These organizations recommend eating and drinking at will during labor :

  • The World Health Organization (WHO)
  • The American College of Nurse-Midwives (ACNM)
  • NICE Clinical Guidance for the United Kingdom
  • The Society of Obstetricians and Gynecologists of Canada (SOGC)

And these organizations recommend drinking water, soda, black coffee, tea, juice, and sports drinks (but don’t allow eating food):

  • The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG)
  • The American Society of Anesthesiologists (ASA)

What should I eat or drink?

 Light foods are best—carbohydrates give slow-release energy that can sustain you for hours.

Here are some suggestions you can include on your hospital bag checklist:

  • fruit
  • light soups
  • toast
  • light sandwiches (no large slices of meat)
  • juice
  • water

Babycenter in the UK suggests:

  • toast, naan or chapati
  • sandwiches
  • cereals
  • pasta
  • yoghurt
  • plain biscuits or crackers
  • soup

Hospitals using the NPO policy are still common in the United States.

But as people advocate for themselves, this will change.

You can state in your birth plan that you plan on eating and drinking at will throughout labor.

Perhaps your birth plan will be the one that helps your hospital shift from outdated restrictions to allowing women what they need to do their best during labor and birth.

[1] http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/28178059

[2] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23926472

[3] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25767817

To learn more about labor options, download our free Birth Plan eBook now. After three years of research, collaboration with more than 100 childbirth experts and resource centers from Healthy Child Healthy World to the American Association of Neonatal Nurses, the Best Ever Baby Birth Plan Guide is available for a free download.

This new resource for pregnant families is a compilation of top tips and advice from more than 20 nationally-recognized experts in the field including renowned pediatrician, Dr. Alan Greene and GraceFull Birthing founder, midwife Elizabeth Bachner. These trusted experts offer thoughtful guidance for whatever type of birthing experience parents want, in whichever setting they choose.

Published: April 13, 2017 Reviewed by: The Best Ever Baby Expert Team | Last reviewed: April, 2017

Sabriga TurgonEating and Drinking During Labor

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