For years now, women have been required to refrain from eating or drinking anything during labor. They’re told that food in their stomach is more likely to make them nauseous during contractions. They’re told their stomach needs to be empty in the event of a cesarean section being needed. They’re told they could aspirate food and drinks into their lungs and risk it causing pneumonia. But are these claims true or entirely unfounded? Where did they start? How have they managed to persist?
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The History of Eating During Birth
Once upon a time, eating and drinking during labor was a normal process. No one questioned it. If a woman was hungry, she should eat. After all, she’s still growing a baby inside her womb until that child is born, and she needs nourishment for strength, right? Still, change was coming. Back in 1946, Dr. Curtis Mendelson decided to run his own experiment on rabbits to determine if aspiration of food caused by general anesthesia had a causal relationship with the development of pneumonia, which he witnessed in one of his patients. The experiment actually showed no such relationship. So where did the recommendation to restrict food and beverages during labor begin?
It started with the very same physician who, despite not having evidence that aspiration caused pneumonia, decided that it was best to keep food and drinks from mothers in labor to reduce the risk of acid aspiration while under general anesthesia. The Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews published a review of five studies testing Mendelson’s theory and found it had no merit. Essentially, this recommendation was and is only suitable for mothers who deliver by cesarean section, but the good doctor issued it as a recommendation for all laboring women.
The Changing Ideas about Eating during Labor
Today, this practice is slowly changing pace as more medical providers become aware of the true risks that eating during labor may or may not impose. Obviously emergency situations arise when women are carted off to surgery to deliver their child. In those events, no one assesses whether the mother has eaten recently. Of course, the risk of not delivering would be larger in these cases, but nonetheless, reactions to anesthesia due to having food in their stomach are minimal. Still, plenty of women have reactions to anesthesia on an empty stomach, too. Furthermore, the forms of anesthesia used today have changed considerably since Mendelson’s research experiment; general anesthesia is now rarely used for C-sections.
In addition, while the rate of cesarean births continues to mount, the majority of mothers delivering in America are still giving birth vaginally. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports 1,284,551 babies were delivered by cesarean section in 2014 while 2,699,951 were delivered vaginally. Some women are delivering without the use of any kind of anesthesia at all. So if the risk of aspiration with anesthesia only applies to women who end up with cesareans, then that same recommendation deprives the remaining number of women who don’t have C-sections of quality nourishment during one of the most physically exhausting events of their lives. Ice chips just don’t cut it! Moms need more, and now they’re getting it.
Chowing Down for Childbirth
Mothers who are preparing to give birth at a hospital or birthing center should ask their midwife or obstetrician about the facility’s policy on eating and drinking during labor. Many are surprised to find these restrictions are easing up all over the nation. Should your intended facility be one that hasn’t jumped on board with modern times, it’s perfectly appropriate to bring the outdated research to your provider’s attention and make a request that they allow it in your case. A Journal of Perinatal Education review noted there is zero evidence that eating or drinking during labor produces negative outcomes for the mother or baby. In fact, hunger and dehydration can contribute to a more difficult and longer labor.
If they still won’t budge, there are a few ways around it. Laboring at home for as long as possible before heading to the birth center or hospital is one way. Moms-to-be are in no danger laboring at home until they are in active labor. This is a good time to start moving toward the birth facility since active labor and the transition stage can pass more quickly — although they often feel as though they drag on for the mother.
Even more extreme than permitting foods during labor, some facilities are now encouraging it! Moms need their strength, so high protein foods and lean fats are the best options before and during labor. Steer clear of carb-loaded dishes. They’ll boost your energy temporarily and leave you feeling hungrier and lethargic — not a good place for tackling the marathon that is childbirth. Heavy meals aren’t a good idea either. They do tend to cause more stomach upset, as do spicy foods, during labor. Small snacks that are easy to prepare and provide dense nutrition are best. Some suggestions are as follows:
- String cheese
- Raw vegetables
- Peanut butter
- Red raspberry leaf tea
- Coconut water
- Honey sticks
- Protein bars
- Graham crackers
Overall, women should be prepared for labor in the final weeks of pregnancy. Trying to eat a nutritious meal once labor has started isn’t a bad idea, but you might be occupied and you never know how long — or short — your labor will be. The average length of labor for a first-time mother is 14 hours, per Parents Magazine, while subsequent babies can arrive much more quickly or take far longer to make their first appearance. Eating right to begin with is best for baby and mom and prepares the woman’s body for both the physical and mental exhaustion that labor can bring. As contractions draw closer and closer together when a woman is in labor, the reprieve between them where she can catch her breath and relax becomes shorter and shorter. As a result, energy is spent more quickly without as much opportunity to recoup it.
Partners play a strong role in advocating for eating and drinking during labor, because it’s actually very easy to forget when you’re the one who is contracting. Making sure Mom is well hydrated and has plenty of nutrient-derived energy stores is the best approach to seeing her through the most difficult and rewarding experience of her life.