Is It Safe for Women to Eat During Labor?

New research presented at the Anesthesiology 2015 annual meeting suggests that eating a light meal or snack during labor is safe for healthy women.

Researchers looked at 385 studies of hospital births published since 1990 and concluded that healthy women should be fine to snack or eat during labor. They equated giving birth to running a marathon. Imagine running 26.2 miles without a snack and with limited access to water. Not only is this hard on the mother, it can be dangerous. When your body runs out of calories to burn, you start burning fat, which can prolong labor and put the newborn at risk.

For a first-time mom, active labor lasts up to eight hours. Active labor is the part of the birthing process where things get intense. You’re experiencing pain and cramping as your body gets ready to push out a baby, while you try to focus on breathing through the experience. It’s an endurance workout, and right now hospitals discourage women from snacking and sometimes even drinking water during this grueling process.

When my water broke back in 2012, I made two phone calls: one to my doctor and one to my doula. My doctor gave me an idea of when I should head to the hospital. My doula’s advice was to eat a meal before going in, since they probably weren’t going to let me eat much, if anything, at the hospital.

I was in labor for 36 hours, and the OB stopped letting me eat about 12 hours in. That’s a long time for anyone to go without food, especially someone doing something so physically demanding. I secretly snacked on cashews when the doctor was out of the room, and I’m sure I’m not the only woman who has resorted to secret eating to keep up her strength during labor.

The no eating rule is mainly due to worries that women will inhale food or fluids into their lungs. Back in the 1940s, when this rule became the norm, doctors used oral anesthesia to put a woman under for a C Section. Since epidurals are the go-to now, that’s not as big a concern. There are some cases where women shouldn’t eat during labor, researchers say, but because of modern anesthesia techniques, that’s now the exception, not the rule.

The researchers do stress that some high-risk patients still shouldn’t eat during labor. Study co-author Erin Sprout, BN says that obese patients, patients with eclampsia or preeclampsia, or patients who opt for opioids to manage labor pain still should not eat while laboring.

Study co-author, Christopher Harty, concluded, “Our findings suggest a change in practice makes sense,” and that patients who “are at low risk for aspiration can likely eat a light meal during labor. This gives expectant mothers more choices in their birthing experience and prevents them from being calorie deficient, helping to provide energy during labor.”

Some OBs are skeptical of the new findings. Dr. Amy Tuteur wonders whether the decrease in complications from inhaled food and drink is due to changes in anesthesia techniques or because the practice of fasting is working. “There’s also been very few cases of polio in the UK since 1990 (because of vaccination),” she says in her response to the press release about the new findings. “That doesn’t mean that polio has disappeared.”

This isn’t the first time fasting during labor has been called into question, however. A 2010 Cochrane study looked at healthy women on a liquid diet versus women eating light meals during labor and found no increased risk. Reuters reports that researchers reviewed five studies on eating during labor. All told, those studies encompassed the experiences of 3100 women. They concluded that “Women should be free to eat and drink in labor, or not, as they wish.”

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Amanda M.
Amanda M3 years ago

Comment continued now that the website's behaving and I actually have something resembling TIME to get online! I agree about how changes in anaesthetic techniques make the no-food rule stupid. If you've got a history of post-op nausea or vomiting, you can make sure it's in your records (if it's not there already), and there's lots of anti-emetics they can whack you up with if you DO need surgery so you're covered there. I should know-I've had two surgeries since my kids were born, and the first time they loaded me up with three anti-emetics while I was out, the second time four just for good measure. To deny a laboring mom food or drink is cruel and unusual punishment. Marathon runners are allowed to eat or drink, so why not laboring moms? Hell, you get people coming into the ER who've just eaten and they need surgery-what are the doctors gonna do, tell them they gotta wait till the've digested their meal? Yeah, right!

Siyus Copetallus
Siyus Copetallus3 years ago

Thank you for sharing.

Jim Ven
Jim Ven3 years ago

thanks for the article.

Franck R.
Past Member 3 years ago

Thanks for sharing

Rose Becke
Rose Becke3 years ago

Makes sense to me

Connie O.
Connie O3 years ago

I sure didn't feel like eating when I was in labor...

LF F3 years ago

I was in a high risk early pregnancy years ago and kept going into premature labor. I wouldn't risk anyone sneaking food. What if you needed surgery?

Muff-Anne Muff-Anne York-

How can you eat while you're in labour? That's what I'd like to know!

Melissa DogLover
Melissa DogLover3 years ago

seems like a silly question to ask in the first place, I mean, do people expect them to starve during labor??? It could be a long or a short labor, as each person's experience varies.