Is Eating During Labor Safe?

That long-held stereotype of moms-to-be being limited to water and ice chips during childbirth? It could soon be a thing of the past. Turns out, eating during labor might not be taboo after all.

For pregnant women at low risk for complications, consuming food or liquids during labor poses no harm, finds a new Cochrane Library analysis. Researchers reviewed five studies involving over 3,000 women in active labor who were unlikely to need general anesthesia, and found that there were no risks associated with eating or drinking while preparing to give birth.

So why is the norm to prohibit eating during labor? Doctors began restricting food in the delivery room in the 1940’s, for fear that general anesthesia could put laboring moms at risk for vomiting, causing food in the stomach to enter the lungs. But today, things have changed. “Anesthesia is very different and so much safer, and in most cases these days, women would be having the cesarean with regional anesthesia rather than general anesthesia, where the risk effectively doesn’t exist,” says Gillian M. L. Gyte of Liverpool University’s department of women’s and children’s health, and a co-author of the review. Plus, fasting during labor doesn’t guarantee an empty stomach anyway, and research suggests that allowing women to eat has the potential to shorten labor length by up to 90 minutes.

Of course, it’s true that plenty of moms-to-be aren’t thinking about food at all as they’re working to bring a new life into the world. But if you’re in labor for hours and hours and hours, a little nibble could help replenish dwindling energy. “We were aware that many women find this [eating during labor] restriction unpleasant, and a cause of worry to them—how they might be able to survive for many hours in labor without food and fluids, especially when the muscle of their uterus is working so hard,” says Gyte.

Still, the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists says food is a no-go, and recommend that women with uncomplicated labors stick with clear liquids like water, fruit juice without pulp, carbonated drinks, clear tea, black coffee and sports drinks.  But the World Health Organization already recommends that healthcare providers should avoid interfering in women’s eating and drinking during low-risk births. And there are even some U.S. practitioners who’ll OK light fare during labor, like toast, applesauce, soup or popsicles.

So what’s right for you? If you think you may want to have the option to eat during labor, talk about it with your doctor ahead of time. “Women should discuss with their caregivers who should know and explain the evidence, and women should have the options to choose,” says Gyte.

By Marygrace Taylor