Anyone who has given birth, or watched someone else in labour, knows it looks like hard work. During labour your body is using a lot of energy and needs to be fuelled. The most current evidence says women should be supported in eating and drinking during labour if they wish.
Despite the available research, women are regularly told by their care providers they can’t eat or drink during labour, in case there is a need for surgery down the track.
Yet other care providers encourage women to eat and drink as they feel like it.
So what’s the truth?
Eating and Drinking During Labour: Why The Ban?
In 1946 a Dr Mendelson published a study, which showed an increased risk of death or serious illness in women who had general anaesthetic for c-sections, because their stomach contents were entering their lungs.
As a result, eating and drinking during labour was considered risky for women and their babies. Hospital policies have been based on this 70 year old study, despite the majority of c-sections not being performed under general anaesthetic, and the risk of aspiration very small.
Yet evidence based research doesn’t support this practice.
A large study from The Cochrane Review finds policies of no oral intake during labour have no benefits for women or their babies.
What Are The Risks Of Oral Intake Restriction?
There is so much happening during labour, it can be difficult to remember the importance of avoiding dehydration and low blood glucose levels.
During labour, your uterus (a large muscle) is working to contract, and relies on glucose to function efficiently. If this glucose isn’t replaced, and the glucose in your bloodstream becomes depleted, your body will begin to break down its fat stores.
This process produces ketones. High levels of ketones accumulating in the body can lead to what is known as starvation ketoacidosis. The signs of this occurring are: fatigue, feeling extremely cold, a fast pulse, fever, blurred thinking, and impaired coordination.
A serious complication of this condition is when the pH level of the blood drops dangerously low (metabolic acidosis). This can lead to organ damage, coma and potentially death.
How Does This Affect Labour?
During labour, you are using up your stores of available glycogen quite quickly. Your body is performing at a peak level, similar to that of a marathon athlete, and ketosis is not an uncommon occurrence. But with regular intake of fluids and nutrition, you can avoid becoming more depleted.
Muscles without energy can’t function efficiently. Labour can become prolonged and painful, and cause you to become exhausted, which can lead to care providers wanting to intervene to get labour back on track. Once the cascade of interventions begins, you are more at risk of having a vacuum or forceps assisted birth, constant monitoring, pain medications and potentially c-section birth.
When To Eat And Drink During Labour
It’s a good idea to eat as often as you can during pre/early labour. Light snacks can keep you going and stock up your stores of glycogen. Light snacks might include:
- Muesli or granola bars
- Porridge or toast
- Nuts and dried fruit
There are no hard and fast rules about what you should eat – whatever you feel like is fine. Most women don’t feel like having anything too heavy but prefer to eat foods that are easily digested and offer more energy over a longer time.
Many women don’t feel like eating in active labour, as they might feel nauseous simply by thinking about food. This is ok, but it can help to have some light snacks on hand, in case your energy levels get low or you feel hungry. Water is perfect for hydration, but if you don’t feel like eating, other fluids that might help nutrition and prevent dehydration include:
- Honey water
- Broth or miso soup
- Clear fruit juice
- Ice blocks, made from fruit and honey
- Fruit purees or jelly
- Coconut water
You might want to organise plenty of drinks and snacks in the weeks leading up to your birth. If you don’t think you will remember to eat, and especially to stay well hydrated, make sure your partner or birth support is aware of how important it is for you to drink.
Especially during the active and pushing stages of labour, you will be resting between contractions, and drinking might be the last thing on your mind. Your partner can offer you water after each contraction.
It can be easier to sip through a straw, so keep a supply on hand. You should be drinking about 300mls every few hours to avoid dehydration.
Your partner or birth support needs to fuel up too! Make sure there are enough snacks and a water bottle for them – you will be relying on them to keep you going, which they can’t do if they are crashing from low sugar or hunger.
What If I Have Eaten And Need A C-Section?
Today’s medical advances mean most c-sections are performed with a regional anaesthetic (epidural or spinal block). In the rare situations where a general anaesthetic is needed, the anaesthetist will ensure there is no aspiration of stomach contents.
If a person needs a general anaesthetic due to an accident, there is no time to wait for food to clear the stomach, and there is no guarantee fasting ensures an empty stomach. Talk to your care provider if you have any concerns.
Keeping yourself fuelled and hydrated is an important way to make sure your body can perform efficiently and your labour doesn’t stall or become prolonged.
The outdated practice of restricting oral intake during labour, in case of emergency surgery, is an example of how hospital policy is based on ‘what has always been done’ and isn’t always in the best interest of mothers and babies.
Recommended Reading: Can Dehydration Cause You To Go Into Labour?