There's no reason to starve when you're delivering a baby

Oct 24, 2015 at 9:07 a.m. ET
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Film and TV depictions of births are full of screaming women sucking on sad cups of ice chips, because for decades, doctors in the U.S. have been telling pregnant women to abstain entirely from eating any food or drinking even water during labor.

But a new study indicates that, for healthy women, that degree of abstention is unnecessary, and most healthy women could actually benefit from a light meal during labor.

According to new research presented at the 2015 annual meeting of anesthesiology, the recommendation against eating or drinking anything during labor was made in the 1940s due to the concern that the woman might inhale food or drink into her lungs, which can lead to pneumonia. Improvements in anesthesia in the decades since then have made occasions of aspiration virtually nonexistent in laboring women.

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In fact, researchers say there was only one case of aspiration during labor between 2005 and 2013 in the U.S., and that woman was reportedly experiencing a high-risk pregnancy with a complicated birth. In healthy mothers with low-risk pregnancies, the order to abstain from everything but ice chips seems unwarranted.

On top of all that, labor is very hard work to do on an empty stomach.

"The energy and caloric demands of laboring women are similar to those of marathon runners," said study co-author Christopher Harty.

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You wouldn't tell a marathon runner to fast during a race, and according to the researchers, it looks like telling laboring women to fast actually has the potential to make labor last even longer.

"Without adequate nutrition, women's bodies will begin to use fat as an energy source, increasing acidity of the blood in the mother and infant, potentially reducing uterine contractions and leading to longer labor and lower health scores in newborns," the study says.

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Not being allowed to eat or drink also adds another layer of stress to an already excruciating experience, and the recommendation against all eating and drinking is not universal either. I delivered my baby in Germany and I was given plenty of water during labor. Nobody ever told me to stop eating either, and I had a backpack full of granola bars with me, pretty much just like a marathon runner.

According to the researchers, eating and drinking during labor is not recommended for everyone. High-risk patients with factors that can increase the risk of aspiration — including eclampsia, pre-eclampsia, obesity and the use of opioids to manage labor pain — are still advised to abstain from all eating and drinking.

For healthy, low-risk pregnancies, however, being allowed to eat a light meal looks like it can improve maternal comfort and energy. Given the physical drawbacks of fasting during labor and the near total lack of risk of aspiration in low-risk deliveries, it seems silly to make healthy, laboring women follow outdated medical advice from the 1940s. Healthy women who feel hungry should ask their doctors if it would be safe to have a snack during labor.