New Recommendation: It’s Okay to Eat During Labor

giving birth

Eating and Drinking During Labor Are Fine, Researchers Now Say

It is astonishing how many things that women have been told by doctors for decades about giving birth and newborns, have turned out to be completely wrong. Here is a quick review of some of the biggies —

  • Promoting formula as “better” for newborns than a mother’s breast milk: we now know that there is nothing nearly as good as a mother’s milk, with its dozens of vital nutrients and strains of friendly bacteria that are specifically made, in the right proportions, for her infant. Breast milk builds a baby’s immunity and helps him fight disease by giving the infant millions of germ-fighting antibodies every time he nurses. We now know that giving a newborn formula increases the risk of colds, food allergies and eczema, and the development of potentially deadly pyloric stenosis: an enlargement of the pylorus, a muscle at the top of the small intestine. Because formula is not as quickly or easily digested by an infant as breast milk, the formula remains in the stomach longer; the small intestine compensates by thickening and narrowing its passageway muscle, to prevent undigested formula from traveling into the intestine. Once the pylorus becomes narrow, it is difficult for even digested milk to enter the small intestine, so, a baby will often vomit after eating. Pyloric stenosis can cause forceful vomiting, dehydration and failure to thrive.
  • Clamping the umbilical cord within seconds from birth, instead of waiting at least one minute: we now know that immediate clamping robs a baby of 2-3 ounces of blood — a sizable percentage of the cup of blood, 8 oz, that the average newborn has. It can result in low blood iron for the baby, and reduced blood oxygenation that could better sustain him if there is a delay in establishing steady breathing. And the wasted cord blood doesn’t help the mom any, either, because it’s just thrown out with the cord.
  • Manually tugging on the cord, to pull out the placenta: this can lead to excessive, unnecessary and potentially fatal uterine bleeding for the mother. A new mom could also wind up bleeding vaginally for a longer period after giving birth than she would have if the doctor or midwife had just waited for the placenta to detach from the uterine wall and come out on its own, usually within one hour after giving birth.
  • Tearing the amniotic sac with a hook, to speed labor and delivery: this procedure is done in excess in the United States and can lead to suffocation of the baby, as the walls of the uterus collapse against the umbilical cord and the little body. It can also frighten the infant and / or put pressure on his or her abdomen, leading the baby to pass her first stool while still inside the uterus, which can pose danger of infection for the infant or a choking hazard.
  • Removing the newborn from the mother immediately after birth once the cord is cut, then enveloping child in a sheet before he or she is returned to the mother: we now know that letting the unclothed infant rest on her mother’s bosom for a time, even if the baby is wiped down and checked over first, is the best thing to do, because it allows skin-to-skin contact between mother and infant, letting the newborn be colonized by the mother’s bacteria, and not strangers’; a mother’s bacteria are best suited to build a healthy immune system in the baby (first, within the child’s skin, then in his gut, once he starts drinking the mother’s milk, which contains many different types of friendly bacteria that will help break down nutrients and make vitamins inside the gut).

And now, the latest entry: eating and drinking fluids during labor isn’t dangerous for most women, after all.

How many moms got hungry or thirsty during labor, yet they were denied food or even water to drink?

So many women in the process of giving birth had to forego any eating because the doctor didn’t allow it, much as the moms may have begged for some food. Even drinking water was not permitted. Chew on a few ice chips was all they were allowed to do, even when labor lasted many, many hours or more than a day!

Recent studies now show that doctors had that all wrong, too. At the American Society of Anesthesiologists’ most recent annual conference, Canadian researchers presented data from several hundred studies spanning 25 years; the studies showed that women in labor need energy and calories comparable to those needed by runners during a marathon!

When the body doesn’t get calories for energy, it burns its fat stores. In the case of a woman in labor, that would be a bad thing because the woman’s and the infant’s blood would turn more acidic, slowing down contractions — which would in turn prolong labor and lead to lower newborn health scores (APGAR scores), in which doctors often subtract points from otherwise healthy infants for such reasons as the newborn having a bluish or pale coloring (from decreased oxygen or blood flow) or being initially under-responsive to physical stimulation.

In addition, fasting, which lowers blood sugar, will decrease a woman’s energy at a time when she needs it most! This might make her body’s mechanisms lethargic, when what’s needed is for all her systems to be functioning optimally. There is also the consideration that when a woman’s gastrointestinal tract is empty, it has less volume, which would likely make it harder for the baby to be pushed out. A plumper, well-hydrated abdomen could help ease the infant out of the womb.

Some women lose their appetite as they exert grueling physical effort and experience the pains of labor; doctors point out that nausea and vomiting are common during labor. But there will be many women — perhaps a majority — who would love to drink some water if they get thirsty, or even fruit juice, and who will get hungry and want to eat, especially when labor winds up taking a long time.

Why Were Women Not Allowed to Eat or Drink During Labor in the Past?

Naturally, you’re probably wondering why eating and drinking were banned from delivery rooms. It turns out the reasons have long been outdated: no one had gotten around to revising procedures that are no longer needed.

Women were denied food and fluids, even water, during delivery, due to the possibility that they might aspirate their food or drink — unintentionally get food or liquid from the stomach into the windpipe or lungs. This was a legitimate concern until a few decades ago, when women were still often heavily sedated during labor, to the point that they were physically incapacitated or not aware of what was going on.

But the analysis of study data found only one case of aspiration in the U.S. occurring during labor between 2005 and 2013, and that patient had complications from pre-eclampsia (a condition that can develop during pregnancy, which can damage internal organs, most notably the kidneys).

Nowadays, women in labor no longer get anesthesia or similar drugs that rendered them unconscious, like they did for a long time, even when they have caesarean sections. Labor pains and caesareans are now managed with epidural or spinal tap injections.

Light meals are recommended, of course. And your doctor might not want to let you eat or drink, if you have a high-risk pregnancy or there is a chance that you might require general anesthesia. It is best to discuss your risks and preferences with your physician before your due date.

The easing up on the no-food rule comes a few years after the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) relaxed its rules on fluid intake, stating that women with uncomplicated pregnancies could now be allowed to drink “modest” amounts of clear liquids, such as water, juices, tea, black coffee or sports drinks. At that time, ACOG still recommended that women not eat solid foods during labor.

No word on whether the organization will be changing its position in view of the recent study findings; but as always, it is smart for individuals to take responsibility for their own health and be their own best advocate.

By Cynthia Sanchez. A graduate of the University of Washington, Cynthia has extensive experience writing about health and wellness topics for different media.