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Can I eat and drink in labor?

Posted on September 10, 2013 at 7:48 AM

We had a great question come up in class on Friday, one that bears writing about because at least one student every session plans to give birth at a hospital where they are told to have a good meal before they come in, because their food will be restricted or prohibited once they check into the labor and delivery department. 

To begin with, even having to ask that title question begs another question: why are we asking permission?  The female body, left to it’s own devices, will naturally shut down appetite as the serious work of labor progresses.  Dr. Bradley teaches to eat to appetite if you are hungry, drink if you are thirsty.  Even after mom is no longer asking for water, Dr. Bradley admonishes coaches to keep mamas hydrated so that the labor progresses with ample hydration to circulate all the hormones that keep labor on track.

As students of natural birth, we know that as labor gets harder and moves closer to birth, the body shuts down appetite because it needs to focus on the work of labor, not digestion.  If labor is prolonged, maybe mom will want literally “a bite” of something: a bite of banana, a bite of cheese, a bite of fruit, a couple of nuts, etc.; definitely not a full meal.  Since we had long labors, we found that clear broths or simple soups (thin tomato soup in my case) were a great compromise.  Although I wasn’t hungry, the liquids gave me a few calories to lend some energy to continue to labor, while also meeting my hydration needs.

Science confirms that hospital policies need to catch up with evidence-based care.  Here are excerpts from the Cochrane Review, plus two other articles for you to consider as you decide what is best for your family.

From the review, “Restricting oral fluid and food intake during labour” [1]
In some cultures, food and drinks are consumed during labour for nourishment and comfort to help meet the demands of labour. However, in many birth settings, oral intake is restricted in response to work by Mendelson in the 1940s. Mendelson reported that during general anaesthesia, there was an increased risk of the stomach contents entering the lungs. The acid nature of the stomach liquid and the presence of food particles were particularly dangerous, and potentially could lead to severe lung disease or death. Since the 1940s, obstetrical anaesthesia has changed considerably, with better general anaesthetic techniques and a greater use of regional anaesthesia. These advances, and the reports by women that they found the restrictions unpleasant, have led to research looking at these restrictions. In addition, poor nutritional balance may be associated with longer and more painful labours, and fasting does not guarantee an empty stomach or less acidity. This review looked at any restriction of fluids and food in labour compared with women able to eat and drink. The review identified five studies involving 3130 women. Most studies had looked at specific foods being recommended, though one study let women choose what they wished to eat and drink. The review identified no benefits or harms of restricting foods and fluids during labour in women at low risk of needing anaesthesia. There were no studies identified on women at increased risk of needing anaesthesia. None of the studies looked at women's views of restricting fluids and foods during labour. Thus, given these findings, women should be free to eat and drink in labour, or not, as they wish.

From the Science Daily article, “Restricting Food and Fluids During Labor Is Unwarranted, Study Suggests” [2]
"There should be no hospital policies which restrict fluids and foods in labor; nor should formal guidelines tell women to take specific foods, such as energy drinks," states one of the study's authors, Gillian ML Gyte, M.Phil, of the department of women and children's health at the University of Liverpool in the U.K.

She and her co-authors point out that prior research has shown that many women in labor do not feel like eating, but for others the notion of long hours without any food or drink can be anxiety provoking.” …

"Our study found no difference in the outcomes measured, in terms of the babies' wellbeing or the likelihood of a woman needing a C-section," said Gyte. "There is no evidence of any benefit to restricting what women eat and drink in labor." The researchers also emphasize the value of allowing women to make choices regarding these matters. 

From the Science Daily article, “Eating and Drinking During Labor: Let Women Decide, Review Suggests” [3]
Throughout much of the last century, eating and drinking during labour was considered dangerous and many maternity units operated "nil by mouth" policies or restricted what women in labour were allowed to eat and drink, regardless of women's preferences. This was largely due to concerns about possibly fatal damage to the lungs caused by "Mendelson's syndrome," where particles of regurgitated food are inhaled under general anaesthetic during Caesarean sections. Recently, however, attitudes have begun to change and in many maternity wards, particularly in the UK, women are now allowed to eat and drink what they want during labour…

"Since the evidence shows no benefits or harms, there is no justification for nil by mouth policies during labour, provided women are at low risk of complications," said lead researcher Mandisa Singata, who is based at the East London Hospital Complex in East London, South Africa. "Women should be able to make their own decisions about whether they want to eat or drink during labour, or not."…

"While it is important to try to prevent Mendelson's syndrome, it is very rare and not the best way to assess whether eating and drinking during labour is beneficial for the majority of patients. It might be better to look at ways of preventing regurgitation during anaesthesia for those patients who do require it," she said. 

So what is a couple to do when the hospital has a policy that restricts food and drink during labor?  Do you feel confident in your choice to eat and drink?  Do you want to circumvent the system by bringing in “Coach’s Food”?

That is a very individual choice.  You can labor at home as long as possible and follow your own cues if you want to prolong going to the hospital where your intake is going to be restricted.  You can pack some “Coach’s Food” and circumvent the system by snacking out of the coach’s cooler.  You can do neither and go with the system.  You can also talk to your care provider, bring in the scientific literature, and see if they will sign off on a birth plan that allows you to eat and drink in the hospital in spite of the policy.  Their hands may be tied, and it may not be a possibility, however as the saying goes, you won’t know unless you try.

Did your birth place have a policy that restricted food and drink?  What did you do; how did you handle it?
Please leave us a comment – it will be moderated and posted.

[1] Singata M, Tranmer J, Gyte GML. Restricting oral fluid and food intake during labour. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews 2013, Issue 8. Art. No.: CD003930. DOI: 10.1002/14651858.CD003930.pub3.

[2] Health Behavior News Service, part of the Center for Advancing Health (2013, August 22). Restricting food and fluids during labor is unwarranted, study suggests. ScienceDaily. Retrieved September 10, 2013, from http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/08/130822141954.htm

[3] Wiley-Blackwell (2010, January 22). Eating and drinking during labor: Let women decide, review suggests. ScienceDaily. Retrieved September 10, 2013, from http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2010/01/100119213043.htm

The material included on this site is for informational purposes only.  It is not intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. The reader should always consult her or his healthcare provider to determine the appropriateness of the information for their own situation.  Krystyna and Bruss Bowman and Bowman House, LLC accept no liability for the content of this site, or for the consequences of any actions taken on the basis of the information provided.  This blog contains information about our classes available in Chandler, AZ and Payson, AZ and is not the official website of The Bradley Method®. The views contained on this blog do not necessarily reflect those of The Bradley Method® or the American Academy of Husband-Coached Childbirth®.Bradley Method® natural childbirth classes offered in Arizona: Chandler, Tempe, Ahwatukee, Gilbert, Mesa, Scottsdale, Payson

Categories: Drinking during labor, Eating during labor, Natural birth, NPO, Nutrition, Obstetrical Care

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