A. In a word: yes! Labor is hard physical work, that’s why they call it labor. You and your baby will be better equipped to handle this work when you are well nourished and hydrated. Fasting in pregnancy is not advised, and that includes during the last hours when you are laboring.
Q. What should I eat in labor?
A. It’s best to eat like an athlete, so consider foods that are easy to digest. Yogurt, applesauce, bananas, and honey sticks are common choices. Consider your comfort foods. What did your mom cook for you when you were little, when you were sick? Chicken soup, buttered toast, noodles, etc. can all be good options. Plan to have a variety of foods available, so if one is unappealing, you can try another. If you have a favorite herbal tea or juice, have that on hand as well. Some women prefer Recharge or coconut water because of their electrolyte replacing properties. Or consider making a pot of your favorite herbal tea ahead of time, adding honey or maple syrup, and freezing it in ice cube trays. Your goal from active labor on will be to drink a glass of fluid an hour. Sometimes women get into a rhythm where they take a sip between each contraction. Because cold and sweet foods make the baby move, eating something cold and sweet in the car on the way to the hospital can help the baby have a reassuring (variable) heart rate during the initial monitoring strip; this can help you get off the monitor sooner and be able to walk the halls or get in the shower or tub.
Q. Why do some hospitals restrict what women in labor eat and drink?
A. It largely comes down to philosophy. If you view women in labor as working through a large physical task, then it makes sense to encourage them to eat and drink to keep their strength up. On the other hand, if you think of labor as a pre-surgical condition, then trying to ensure that a laboring woman’s stomach is empty begins to make sense. Anesthesiologists prefer empty stomachs because there is less risk of aspiration when a person under general anesthesia is improperly intubated. Most cesarean births are done under regional anesthesia, which does not require intubation. Technology has decreased the risk of improper intubation, and general anesthesia can be administrated to someone who has recently eaten.
Q. I am planning to have an epidural, should I still eat in labor?
A. Hospitals generally limit what laboring women with epidurals can eat and drink. However, you can still eat in labor up until you receive an epidural. Because being well nourished and hydrated help us handle pain better, this plan may actually help you to delay receiving an epidural, especially when combined with other labor strategies such as laboring in water or in a variety of positions, and using a doula. Delaying an epidural has been shown to significantly reduce the risk of cesarean birth.
Julie Brill, CCCE, CLD has been a perinatal educator since 1992 and on the CAPPA Faculty since 2003. She teaches childbirth and labor doula trainings in New England and offers childbirth classes, Prepare for Cesarean Birth workshops, and birth option consults by phone and Skype. She is the homeschooling mother of teenage daughters. Visit her website at http://www.WellPregnancy.com.