While the evidence about safely eating and drinking during labor is quite clear, hospitals have not done much to update their policies to align with the most recent research. Let’s dig in!
Why Is It Thought To Be Dangerous To Eat or Drink During Labor?
The main reason hospitals don’t want you to eat or drink during pregnancy is because they are concerned about aspiration (vomiting stomach contents into your mouth) during an emergency cesarean. However, this concern is not based on current evidence. This precaution is based on antiquated “Nothing By Mouth” policies adopted in the 1940s before many advances in anesthesia.
The way anesthesia was used in the 1940s was crude and unsafe and the context of how labor was managed was very different from how it is today. Most White birthing people in the 1940s were given Twilight Sleep and inhaled anesthetics during labor. Note that medical care was segregated in the 1940s and the care afforded to White patients was very different from the care provided to Black patients. In the 1940s, aspiration was recognized as a major problem during birth. Anesthesiologists used very primitive tools to keep a person’s airway open while they were under general anesthesia, and some doctors didn’t use any airway tools at all.
As stated by Evidence Based Birth: “Now that the safety of anesthesia has greatly improved, hospital policies and physician guidelines need to be rewritten to be in line with current evidence”. Many recent studies have shown that a very small percentage of Cesareans require general anesthesia, and when they do, failed airway management is rare.
Moreover, a large body of research has shown that low-risk participants did not find any evidence of harm or benefit from eating and drinking during labor (Singata et al. 2013).
Despite the most recent evidence, most hospitals will tell you that you are not permitted to eat anything under hospital policy and that you can only consume clear liquids.
Are There Benefits to Eating or Drinking During Labor?
Labor is most often a LONG process that requires endurance and energy. Depriving yourself of any food or drink during labor will lead to exhaustion. PERIOD.
Research shows that people laboring under less-restrictive eating and drinking policies had shorter labors by about 16 minutes and no other differences in health outcomes (Ciardulli et al. 2017). Studies also show that parental satisfaction is almost double for those who eat and drink during labor compared to those who are limited to sips of water (Goodall & Wallymahmed, 2006). That’s HUGE!
If you are a research nerd like me I encourage you to check out Evidence Based Birth’s article and Podcast “Evidence on: Eating and Drinking During Labor”. They go into much more detail about all of the research regarding the safety and benefits of eating and drinking during labor.
What If My Provider Tells Me I Can't Eat?
Eating and drinking during labor is an issue of bodily autonomy and human rights. The choice to eat or drink during labor should be yours. No one has the right to tell you what you can and cannot eat. If you receive pushback from your healthcare provider about eating and drinking during labor, ask them to provide the evidence behind their recommendation. Ask specifically about the benefits, and the absolute risk of eating and drinking during labor. You can share the Evidence Based Birth article (mentioned above) to let them know you are making an informed choice. They may require you to sign an AMA (against medical advice) form in order to eat as you desire.
Bottom line: You have the right to decide whether they’d like to eat and drink during labor. No one can deprive you of this right.
What Are Good Labor Snacks?
During labor, your body is focusing its energy on birthing your baby, as a result, your digestion slows down. For this reason, I don’t recommend eating a super heavy meal during labor. A large steak dinner is not going to settle well. Keep your snacking on the lighter side and make sure you are choosing snacks packed with vitamins and nutrients that will fuel your body.
My top recommendations for labor snacks and drinks:
Date fruit (LaraBars are also a great option)
Tortillas with a honey or tahini spread
Tostones (platano power!)
Fried plantain (maduros) bites in light oil
Labor-Aide! (see a recipe below)
Cereal and milk
Toast with butter/jam
Red Raspberry Leaf Labor-Aid Recipe
2 cups of water
½ cup of Red raspberry leaf (or 8 tea bags)
⅓ to ½ cup of honey
Boil roughly two cups of water. Add hot water and red raspberry leaf to a mason
jar. Cover and shake (be sure to use a towel to hold the jar as the glass will heat up). Allow the tea to steep for 4 hours or overnight. If you don’t have time to let the infusion sit for 4+ hours, you can boil the herbs for 20 minutes in water on the stove.
Strain the red raspberry leaf infusion so that you just have the liquid tea. Combine the infused tea with coconut water and honey. Mix to combine and enjoy.
Disclaimer: This information does not substitute for a care provider-patient relationship and should not be relied on as personal medical advice.
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Meet the Author
Clara O'Rourke (she hers),
Holistic Doula & Childbirth Educator.
I am a researcher turned total birth nerd with a passion for supporting people birth in their full power! I guide people through their pregnancy, labor, and postpartum journey by helping them overcome fear or anxiety about birth, providing evidence-based information so they can make informed decisions, and making sure they have everything they need to birth with confidence. Birth is sacred and it should be treated that way. I am committed to providing support for birth and beyond, regardless of a person's background, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, or relationship status. También ofrezco mis servicios en español. I wish you and your growing family the brightest of beginnings!