A woman in labor is working harder and longer than she may ever have done before. Eating is important to maintain her energy, strength, stamina, and good health. Many women choose light, easily digested foods–whatever appeals to them most at the time. However, many hospitals and care providers have a policy in which laboring women can only have ice chips to “eat” during labor. Others permit water and sometimes clear liquids. This is an example of a situation in which common policy and routine is NOT in accordance with evidence based care.
A large recent study from the UK confirms what birth professionals have long felt to be true–that light eating during labor does NOT raise the risk of complications.
Policies denying women solid foods during labor are often explained with the reasoning that there is a risk of “aspiration pneumonia” if you eat during labor (and then end up having a cesarean under general anesthesia). The researcher, Dr. Liu, says that this problem “did not occur.” He also stated that the UK Department of Health’s records show only one case of aspiration in two million births (the risk of complications of cesarean is considerably higher than that and that doesn’t stop US doctors from having a 31% national rate of cesareans!).
Policies against eating during labor originated during the 1950’s and things have changed a good deal since then. As an ICAN representative stated, “This new study will allow doctors to rest assured that eating helps rather than hinders the birth experience.”
The excellent exhaustive research summary and review A Guide to Effective Care in Pregnancy & Childbirth (available for free download from Childbirth Connection), also supports light eating during labor, pointing out that not doing so leads to a risk of dehydration and/or ketosis. Withholding food or drink from women in labor is included in the Effective Care book’s table, “Forms of care unlikely to be beneficial.”