Allowed To Eat During Labor? Recommendations Say, “Why Not?”

Moms should be allowed to eat during laborShould you or shouldn’t you? Rather, can you or can you not is more like it when it comes to eating during labor. For generations, women were not ‘allowed’ to eat during labor, but does that still hold? Should it? One mama reflects on eating during labor and the current belief that it may even help moms keep their energy up.

Shocker, we know. Eating during labor may actually help keep your energy up. You know, since birthing a human being is HARD work and takes a lot out of you and all. Ice chips only go so far.

Think about it, really. When we restrict food, we’re stressing our bodies. Sometimes we do so by choice, when we’re looking to lose some weight for health reasons.

Related: Breathing During Labor & Birth: What You Need to Know

But to be told not to eat during what many women call the most intense workouts of their lives? Seems counterintuitive for giving mamas the energy and stamina they need. Consider doing that to an already stressed body (because spoiler alert–giving birth is a stress on our bodies too) and we’re asking women to set themselves up for failure.

When we don’t fuel our bodies, we can cause dehydration and ketosis. Ketosis is when our body turns to our fatty storage for energy and can even lead to vomiting, headaches and nausea during labor. Not exactly the prime set up for bringing your new little human into the world, is it?

The prevailing ideas before ACOG released better, less intrusive guidance for mamas was that there was to be no food. Now, though some doctors will still tell you to avoid foods on the ‘off-chance’ you may need to have emergency interventions, it’s if you’re low-risk (most mamas are), there’s no reason you should refrain from food and certainly not hydration. In fact, you most likely will benefit from carbohydrates that will give you long, slow releases of energy to help you through the contractions.

That’s what one of our mamas found–a one-size-fits all approach to birthing, and specifically eating during labor, was just not the way to go. The following is what she shared with us when even anesthesiologists finally started being open enough to say, “Hey, a little food during labor isn’t going to make or break anything.”

My first birth took place in a hospital, with half of my labor happening at home while the other half of my 40-hour experience had me pacing the halls of my local labor ward, painfully aware of the presence of others, hooked up to an IV of antibiotics, and eventually succumbing to the suggestion of Pitocin I had so desperately wanted to avoid, which was recommended due to the fact that I was in labor for “too long.”

During my 40-hour birthing process, I was not allowed to eat.

40 hours. Almost two whole days. Even though half of my labor was spent in the comfort of my own home (before my water broke and I felt the dramatic need to rush to the hospital, just like in the movies), I didn’t eat while I was there either. Because the doctors told me not to.

I wasn’t sure why, at the time. After my first birth experience, when I went on to do more research (as so many mothers do, when the light switches on inside of us and we wonder: “What else don’t I know??”), I learned that this rule was in place because I might have needed anesthesia at some point during labor, and there was a statistically small chance that I may have aspirated on any food I had recently eaten.

I, an individual birthing woman, and so many other women having babies in hospitals like mine, were each forbidden from eating food for the length of our respective labors, because of a relatively tiny chance that we might inhale food into our lungs and end up with pneumonia.

When I first read that the concern was aspiration, I thought it made sense, sort of. Aspiration sounds scary. But when I learned that this issue was rare, and that the need for anesthesia during labor could be lowered with certain preventative measures, the fog lifted and I realized that the risk of disaster due to eating a snack during labor was minimal, and the benefits of nourishment for the marathon of birth outweighed any such risk.

Related: Team Birth Project Works To Reduce Unnecessary Cesarean Deliveries

During my subsequent homebirth, I ate eggs, spinach, tomatoes, bone broth, and a smoothie, among other nutrient-dense options. I ate early in my 24-hour labor, feasting on plates of snacks that my husband prepared for me while I breathed through my experience. The last 5-or-so hours of my homebirth were so intense that I couldn’t remember what food was, never mind eat it. But the calories I’d consumed earlier worked to fuel my strength throughout those last few hours, during which I ommm-ed and gyrated my baby into this world, sitting on my toilet in my bathroom at home.

‘Research’ presented at an annual anesthesiology meeting has finally caught up with what evidence-based birthers have known for years. In a statement released on October 24th, 2015 by the American Society of Anesthesiologists, they say, “Most healthy women can skip the fasting and, in fact, would benefit from eating a light meal during labor… When researchers reviewed the literature of hundreds of studies on the topic, they determined that withholding food and liquids may be unnecessary for many women in labor.”

A co-author of the research that inspired this change also stated that “Physician anesthesiologists and obstetricians should work together to assess each patient individually.”

Assess each patient individually, rather than creating a potentially unnecessary, limiting, one-size-fits-all rule for all birthing women? Who’da thunk?

Image: Kzenon/Shutterstock

7 thoughts on “Allowed To Eat During Labor? Recommendations Say, “Why Not?””

  1. Thank you for writing this! I too was not allowed to eat and I believe that was the worst part of labor. Had I not been starving it would have made a huge difference for my labor and delivery. I would have had energy and I would have better been able to focus on labor instead of how incredibly hungry and weak I felt. Making women starve is barbaric.

  2. I wonder if the statement from anesthesia applies to women receiving epidural analgesia and not inclusive of the women on ‘pitocin’. In BC the current standard of care for women on Oxytocin infusion for induction or augmentation of labour is to not eat. This is because of the increased risk at having a stat caesarean birth due to it being an intervention that could potentially stress the baby out. Oxytocin is carefully monitored by a specialized RN at the bedside so I could see that case by case women be given the opportunity to eat and keep fuelled up. Unfortunately, when you have multidisciplines and potential legal issues (which OB has the potential for) blanket statements and guidelines are often made. However, I think a true change is potentially on the rise.

    1. Your right the risk of stat c-section is why the eating is an issue. I had to have one and I vomited. My husband and I are nurses so I knew to turn my head and he grabbed suction. It is the right of an anesthesiologist not to sleep a person or epidural a person that has eaten. Lawsuit risk are just to high.

      1. I’m a nurse as well. I work maternity. I was wondering if anyone else would pick up on this. It was never about anesthesia while laboring. It’s about if there is a problem and the mom goes to section. I’m still interested in how eating can be better incorporated for hospital births. It does feel cruel. Minimally, I would think it would be fairly safe for a proven multip mom. Then there’s still feral distress. I know there is a legitimate risk for going to surgery. People really do die from aspiration pneumonia. And you betcha we’re held to the highest standard by the same people who would complain if we were not more flexible. We have one doctor who routinely says it’s ok to eat “as long as you don’t mind throwing it up”. (labor itself often makes you vomit if you have a full stomach) His outcomes have always been good *that I’m aware*. Most opt to go pretty light. Our sections go out of dept to the regular OR so I don’t have much on how likely it is to actually aspirate. Like you said, it happened to you.

        1. I just had a baby, induced by Cervedil and Pitocin due to gestational diabetes. They did feed me in labor, but it was a clear liquid diet (breakfast and lunch, then brought in dinner when I was in transition so of course I couldn’t eat it..

  3. I have 2 children and I snuck food during both labors, while on pitocin, and I was healthier for it. The only time I felt nautious was when I was hungry! Your body knows what it needs, which is why we have cravings for the nutrients we need during pregnancy. If I feel the urge to eat it’s because my body needs the nutrients. It’s idiotic that doctors think women should suffer through the pains of labor and hunger at the same time. It’s called labor for a reason, our bodies are burning calories like a furnace! Thank you so much for writing this article, hopefully doctors will back off of this rediculous restriction on a case by case basis in all hospitals. I feel sad for you that you fasted when you were laboring at home; that was completely unnecessary and shame on the doctor who told you otherwise!

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