Fact VS. Myth: Eating and Drinking During Labor and Delivery
A common obstetric myth is the idea that women should not be allowed to eat or drink during the labor and delivery process. According to Evidence Based Birth, a recent survey of mothers who gave birth in U.S. hospitals showed that 60% of them reported not drinking during labor, and 80% said that they did not eat. When people are free to eat and drink as desired during labor, as is typical in U.S. freestanding birth centers, most of them (95%) choose to eat or drink (EvidenceBasedBirth).
There are a couple of reasons why this practice to limit mothers is counterintuitive; for instance, women can be in labor for a long time, sometimes days, and need nourishment during this process. Labor takes a huge toll on the body and requires sustenance to give mama the energy she needs to birth that baby. If a laboring woman does choose to ingest food during labor, however, it is important that she try to stick to easily digestible foods. Some common options include watermelon, crackers, granola bars, soups/broths, eggs, applesauce, etc.
In terms of drinking, a partner, family member, doula, medical professional, etc. should be offering the laboring mama water pretty frequently in order to keep her well-hydrated. Other drinks such as apple juice, Gatorade, coconut water, tea with honey, etc. will also give the mama a little energy boost due to the sugar and/or electrolytes in these beverages (BirthTakesAVillage).
Having someone offer the laboring mama a drink using a straw after each contraction is one of the best ways to ensure constant hydration. According to Birth Takes a Village, one of the reasons withholding food during labor became a routine practice is because of the fear that a woman may end up having a cesarean birth because when under general anesthetic, there is a very small risk that food from the stomach might be regurgitated and inhaled into the lungs. With modern day practices, however, the risk of this happening is very low. A recent study examined the risk of aspiration during general anesthesia and looked at 4097 maternal deaths that occurred in the U.S. from 1979 to 1990. They ultimately concluded that the risk of aspiration was 7 events in 10 million births, which is less likely than being struck by lightning.
Another study looked at 11,814 women who were allowed to eat and drink during labor and although some of these women required emergency cesareans, there were zero cases of morbidity or mortality reported from aspiration pneumonia (EvidenceBasedBirth).
Ultimately, from the evidence and former studies we can determine that it is best to give the laboring mother freedom of choice when it comes to whether or not she wants to eat or drink during labor. Of course, water is a necessity, but other beverages and foods should be considered based on the comfort of the mother and what she feels she needs to get through the labor. Maternal discomfort is surely something we do not want to encourage, as it has been proven to negatively impact the birth experience both physically/physiologically and emotionally. We want to do all we can to encourage a positive and successful birth experience and only actively participate or voice our opinions when our failure to do so may cause distress or poor outcomes.