We know that labour is hard physical work. We know that other hard, physical work is best undertaken with food in our bellies. Not a three-course meal or a Christmas dinner, but a light, energy-rich meal which sustains us, or regular snacks to power us on. We would never take a long bike ride or play a game of tennis on an empty stomach. Labour is no different. We need to keep our strength up and we need to be able to listen to our body’s needs.
Is it dangerous to eat and drink in labour?Nowadays, most hospitals support most birthing women and people to eat and drink in labour, although it may still be restricted in some countries. This restriction is not a law, and the only person who can actually decide whether the person giving birth eats or drinks is the person giving birth. But when making this decision for yourself it is important to know why the restriction was there in the first place.
Back in the first half of the 20th Century, doctors began to use drugs on women giving birth which made them go to sleep (not always with their consent). The women sometimes vomited during this induced sleep - when a person is artificially asleep they may not always be able to ‘protect’ their airway. Protecting the airway happens we cough or choke if anything other than air enters our breathing tubes, and this instinct can be supressed by the drugs which are used for the general anaesthetic. At the time, neither anaesthesia nor the management of airways by doctors was very advanced, making aspiration (breathing in) of vomit whilst under the effects of an anaesthetic was more common. It was therefore recommended that food and liquid be restricted in labour in case general anaesthetic was used.
Nowadays, putting a woman or person to sleep for their baby’s birth is rare, although it can happen. However, the way that anaesthetics now work is vastly different to 100 years ago. We have better drugs, specialist tools and well-known procedures to stop aspiration from happening. The chances of a woman or person dying from aspiration are now exceptionally low. Since the year 2000, the chance of dying from vomit aspiration during birth is less than one in six million births.
Is it good for me to eat and drink in labour?The risks of eating and drinking in labour are very low. Yet, not eating and drinking during your labour can lead to exhaustion, headaches and may even slow down your labour. Labour can take a long time, so aiming for slow-release energy foods can be helpful.
As with any medical or midwifery situation, do talk to your midwife and/or doctor if you want to. Assuming you decide that you do want to eat and drink in labour, what would be good choices?
What to eat and drink in labourIt’s often the case that women feel less like eating as labour progresses. Having light snacks ready, and food and liquids with a high energy hit are therefore good options. Things which can be chewed and swallowed fast between contractions are also helpful. Here are some ideas:
In early labour consider sandwiches, crackers with nut butter, cut veggies with a hummus dip or granola bars. Fruits such as apples (maybe sliced so you can easily grab small pieces), grapes and bananas are great, but try to include more complex carbohydrates, as well, to give your body slow-releasing fuel.
You may prefer to avoid large meals which are more difficult for the body to process when it is working so hard. Again, if you wouldn’t eat it before a long bike ride or a swim, best not to eat it now! Do drink water and have a straw to hand, as it’s easier to grab a few sips that way without moving position, which you may not want to do.
As labour progresses, you may feel less like eating, so just go with what your body tells you is right for you. Do try to keep drinking if you feel you want to. Water is always good, of course, but you may find that apple juice gives you a bit of a sugar boost if you are flagging, and some women like to have a sports drink to hand. A teaspoon of honey might be just the thing if you are exhausted and can’t eat. However, if you feel like you’d like something more substantial, go for it. Your body, your choice!