Eating During Labor?

fruit salad on gray bowls

Controversy about the risks and benefits of eating during labor continues. What are the reasons why eating may be beneficial? Are some foods better to eat during labor than others?

Until the 1940’s, women were actually told to eat and drink as they desired during labor. All of that changed in 1949, when 1 study showed that women who ate during labor had a higher chance of aspiration (food entering the lungs during anesthesia.) Since then, women have often been told that as soon as they feel contractions or think they are in labor, they should stop eating.

There are several reasons why this study, done nearly 60 years ago, should no longer apply to women in labor today:

  1. The original study was based on very high amounts of anesthesia, which are no longer used on women during cesarean births.
  2. Fasting during labor does not guarantee an empty stomach.
  3. The risk of aspiration only occurs with general anesthesia, which is used very rarely for cesareans.
  4. Prolonged fasting increases the amount of hydrochloric acid in your stomach which can increase the complications with aspiration.
  5. It is not good to base recommendations for practice on one study, especially given that this particular study is extremely outdated.

Arguments made for eating during labor include:

  1. Eating small amounts of easily-digested foods during labor can give you the energy you need to keep going.
  2. A 1989 National Birth Center study showed that 11,814 women who ate and drank at will during labor did not have a single case of aspiration, even among the 22% of women in the total group who required a cesarean.
  3. Sometimes the knowledge that you can’t eat during your labor can affect your sense of control. That alone might make you feel like giving up sooner.
  4. Often midwives and doulas report that if a mother’s labor is not progressing, often eating and drinking during labor helps to get things moving.

What are good “Labor Foods” to eat during labor?

It might help to think about the foods you would eat if you are recovering from a stomach flu. You would not start eating pizza right away! In fact, the Cochrane Pregnancy and Childbirth Group (a well-known source of evidence-based information and research) recommends the use of a low fat, low residue diet during labor.

Here is a list of some of the top foods that women often enjoy eating during labor.

  • Plenty of fluids – water, diluted juice, electrolyte-balanced beverages
  • Toast or ½ bagel with jam
  • Cereals – hot or cold
  • Eggs
  • Pancakes
  • Pasta (light sauce or parmesan)
  • Tea with sugar or honey
  • Sorbet or ice cream
  • Jello
  • Baked or mashed potato
  • Soup – non-creamy
  • Mashed banana or mango
  • Applesauce
  • Yogurt
  • ½ Granola or cereal bar

Not everyone is hungry in labor, so don’t force yourself to eat. Studies have shown that women tend to eat more in early labor and then gradually taper off how much food they eat as labor progresses. If you are not feeling like you want to eat during your labor then listen to your body. Instead try sipping fluids containing a small amount of sugar or a popsicle, even if you don’t feel like eating solid foods during labor.

Also avoid heavily-sweetened juice. It’s even better to dilute what you are drinking. A high sugar content can increase nausea and acid in your stomach. Your place of birth may not allow solid foods in labor so be sure to check ahead of time if you would like the option of eating during labor. If you plan to use a birth center, there are typically no restrictions in eating or drinking during labor.

Either way, you should have the option to eat up until the time you leave for the hospital. Your birth team will also get hungry so don’t forget to pack a snack for fathers and support people in your labor bag.

What foods did you like to eat in labor? Tell us about it.

For more information about planning for birth, click here.

For more information about eating, see All About Pregnancy Nutrition.