Is Eating During Labor Harmful?

Eyeing her husband’s delicious, cheesy chicken sandwich, my patient sighs wistfully. “Man, I want to be able to eat some lunch!” she exclaims. The hospital where I work, like many labor and delivery facilities, does not allow women to eat during labor — but is restricting food necessary? Is eating during labor dangerous?

Woman eating chicken sandwich

“Pregnant patients, please do not eat until you have been cleared by a doctor. Thank you,” reads the sign perched on the nurses’ station, immediately visible to visitors and patients stepping off of the elevator to the labor and delivery unit.

Apparently, the sign was necessary because, well, pregnant women like to eat. And I can’t really blame them. When I was pregnant with my daughter, I had a nurse-midwife who was fine with letting me eat light snacks during my labor. I actually found that I wasn’t really hungry at all, but having some saltine crackers and popsicles helped me to avoid feeling really nauseous as I transitioned into full-blown dilation. And after 17 hours of labor, I was grateful for that small sustenance those snacks provided me to go on.

So what’s all the fuss about?

The ban on food and drink during labor originated out of the fear of aspiration — inhaling stomach contents into the lungs — during anesthesia, a potentially fatal problem. Shnider and Levinson ́s Anesthesia for Obstetrics (2002) estimates that 1 in 1,600 women will aspirate following a C-section and that 33 percent of all anesthesia-related deaths in mothers are a result of aspiration.

"...33 percent of all anesthesia-related deaths in mothers are a result of aspiration."

For a woman in labor, doctors began to fear the unknown “what if” of an emergency C-section. If they allowed her eat and she wound up with the cut, she may be at an increased risk for a completely preventable death — all because of a little snack during labor.

Fortunately, according to the American College of Obstetrics & Gynecology (ACOG), the rate of aspiration has decreased, due in part to the use of epidurals instead of general anesthesia for C-sections.

But what if I don’t get a C-section?

There’s the rub. Should food and water be restricted on all pregnant women out of the fear of the rare cases when a woman will need general anesthesia for a C-section?

Well, yes and no.

After looking at all of the studies done on food and drinks during labor the Effective Care Research Unit concluded that “there is no justification for the restriction of fluids and food in labor for women at low risk of complications.”

However, even women with a low risk of complications can wind up with an emergency C-section — it’s kind of the definition of an “emergency.” An emergency C-section can’t be predicted, so it would be impossible to limit food and/or water in those cases.

The final verdict?

Eating during labor isn’t dangerous — but eating before a C-section could be deadly. The ACOG does state that women with normal labors and no risk factors can drink “modest amounts of clear liquids such as water, fruit juice without pulp, carbonated beverages, clear tea, black coffee and sports drinks.”

But food is still a no-no, especially for women with high risk factors (like gestational diabetes or high blood pressure) and planned C-sections. “Solid foods should be avoided in laboring patients,” declares the official statement from the ACOG committee.

It looks like that chicken sandwich will have to wait.

More about labor

Myths about inducing labor
The truth about false labor
Braxton Hicks vs. real labor contractions

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