If you're on the brink of birth, here's something you may want to talk to your OB/GYN or midwife about before the contractions begin: Can you eat during labor? Turns out policies for laboring women range from "no way" to "yes absolutely." So who's right?
It all depends on your unique situation, and the views of your health care provider.
OB/GYN says: No
Jason James, MD, an OB/GYN and chair of the department of OB/GYN at Baptist Hospital of Miami
Why: "While there is nothing inherently wrong with having a small amount to eat during labor, many hospitals require patients to be NPO (nothing by mouth) when admitted. This is because should an emergency arise and the mom requires a C-section with general anesthesia, she is at risk for serious complications. While placing a breathing tube down the throat, food in the stomach can regurgitate and enter the lungs. This is called aspiration and can result in aspiration pneumonia, an infection that can be life threatening."
His advice: "Stay home during the early phases of labor, where you can eat a light meal. Only once you are more uncomfortable, your water has broken, or there's any concern for the well being of the infant should you proceed to the hospital, where eating may not be allowed."
Doula says: Yes
Jessica Goggin, a doula in San Antonio, Texas
Why: "Generally, women have better outcomes when they eat and drink during labor because labor requires a tremendous amount of energy!" she points out. "The biggest concern is aspiration under general anesthesia, but general anesthesia is rare, even in cases of emergency cesareans. Numerous studies show that for low-risk births, there are no adverse outcomes for mom or baby when mom eats or drinks during labor."
Her advice: "Talk openly with your health care providers about their stance on this particular issue," she says. "Generally I recommend that moms eat a light meal in early labor before they go to their hospital, and pack light snacks for their hospital bag. In my experience, good choices are honey sticks or packets, applesauce, energy bars they're familiar with, crackers, non-dairy smoothies and fruit."
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Midwife says: No
Jennifer Ceccardi, head certified nurse midwife at Akron General Hospital in Ohio
Why: "During labor and while at home, it is safe to eat and important to keep up good hydration. Unfortunately, a laboring woman often has episodes of vomiting during active labor, which is very normal, so she may not feel hungry or even want to eat during this time. In most hospitals, due to concerns for emergencies and anesthesia, there is a concern for the woman's risk of aspiration in the rare event that she may need general anesthesia. Although this percentage is very small, it is dangerous for the woman, and a risk most hospitals, and families, do not want to take."
Her advice: "While I don't think eating is a good idea, there is good evidence that clear liquids are safe, and staying well-hydrated may actually help to keep labor progressing. That's why many hospitals allow a laboring woman to drink clear liquids, such as water, ginger ale, and popsicles."
Prenatal Educator says: Yes
Deena Blumenfeld, childbirth educator at Shining Light Prenatal Education
Why: "Scientific evidence supports eating and drinking during labor. So, the NPO polices at most hospitals are outdated and can cause harm. Every hospital or birthing center will have different policies: Some have an ice chips only policy, or clear fluids only, while the local birth center encourages laboring women to eat whatever they want, whenever they want to the point of cooking for them!"
Her advice: "Once you're in active labor (which means 6+ centimeters dilated), don't have a whole meal, but try to eat something once an hour, even if it's just two bites. This will keep your blood sugar consistent and your energy levels up. To stay hydrated, take a sip of water between contractions. As for what to eat, my favorite recommendation is peanut butter and jelly, since it has sugar and protein for both short and long-term energy. Plus it doesn't need to be refrigerated -- a luxury many hospitals won't offer."
Bottom Line: Don't assume you'll be able to indulge in your cravings once you hit the hospital. Talk to your healthcare provider in the months leading up to delivery to find out their policy. If you're delivering in a hospital, you might also want to add a question about eating during labor to the list you ask during your maternity ward tour.
Did you (or will you) eat during labor?
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