Many women are told that when they are admitted to the hospital in labor they will have restrictions on what they can eat and drink. Some are told they can only have ice chips, while others are allowed to drink liquids but are not given any solid foods. Knowing what the evidence shows can help you decide what you might want to ingest — or avoid— when you are about to give birth.

The main reason many hospitals will ask women to refrain from eating during labor is that we know food and liquids move more slowly through the gastrointestinal system in pregnant women. This means food sits longer in a woman’s stomach.

The anatomy changes and hormones of pregnancy also make it easier for a pregnant woman to aspirate, which is when food or liquids come up from the stomach and go into the lungs. This can lead to serious trouble breathing, as well as the risk for lung infections.

Another reason women are often told to fast is that it is hard to predict who in labor might need an emergent surgical procedure and who will not. And if a woman does need emergency surgery, she may need to be put to sleep with general anesthesia — which again increases her risk of aspiration.

Despite all these concerns, the data to back up any of these practices is scarce at best. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists recognizes this and says that in light of lacking evidence, it is probably OK for laboring women to drink clear liquids. This includes any beverage that you can see through, such as water and apple juice. They also recommend that solid foods be avoided, since it can’t be predicted who might need an unscheduled surgical procedure.

A recent review of 5 studies that included a total of approximately 3,000 women showed there was no harm in allowing laboring women to eat and drink what they want. Based on this, the authors state that women should be allowed to eat and drink as they choose. In fact, for some women with long inductions or prolonged labor, restricting food may actually lengthen their labors, and in these groups good nutrition may be even more important during the birthing process.

So what should you do if your hospital has policies that restrict what you can eat and drink (and you want to eat something during labor, though not all women care to!)? Have an open discussion with your doctor and nurse about your concerns. If your pregnancy is low risk and your labor is progressing normally, having something to drink and eat is probably fine. Don’t go crazy on pizza, but consider high protein snacks like nuts and peanut butter. However, if your doctor is concerned that you may need a C-section (such as if your baby has a concerning heart rate), you should probably hold off and heed their advice.

Reviewed by Dr. Jen Lincoln, December 2018

Takeaways

  • Many hospitals have policies on what laboring women can and can’t eat or drink.
  • The main concern is that pregnant women may be at a higher risk for aspiration, which can lead to serious lung disease and even death.
  • However, data to back up these concerns is lacking.

References

  1. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. Committee Opinion #441: Oral intake during labor. September 2009.
  2. M Singata et al. Eating and drinking in labour. Cochrane review 22 August 2013.

Comments

  1. My doctor allowed me to eat to control my diabetes (Type 1, not gestational). But really, I wasn’t hungry at all. I was mostly just trying to focus on surviving contractions! 😉

    Reply
    1. Yes, some women have food as the farthest thing from their minds and wouldn’t touch anything even if allowed! But I bet with your type 1 diabetes they kept a very close eye on your blood sugar!

      Reply
  2. Not being able to eat or drink is the worst! Awesome that the policies may be changing due to new research.

    Reply
    1. I agree Molly – let’s base our practice on data and not make things more complicated than they need to be….

      Reply
  3. Very good info to know! I’ll talk to my doctor when the time gets closer. I find that if I go without eating for a couple hours I lose my energy.

    Reply
    1. Me too!

      Reply

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