Eating and drinking while in labor has been a controversial issue in the past. In fact, some hospitals still don’t allow you to eat in labor. The reasoning behind this is concern about the remote possibility of having to do emergency surgery under general anesthesia and the risk of aspirating whatever you ate. The evidence actually does not support this concern. The evidence supports people eating and drinking as they are able in labor to support healthy energy levels and adequate hydration for giving birth. A recent study confirms what we have known for years click here to read more.
Giving birth is comparable to marathon running in terms of the amount of energy needed. To keep your body functioning well you need adequate hydration and energy. The evidence shows that women should be able to eat and drink as desired in labor without negative impact in the case of an emergency. Over and over again I have seen women flagging in labor eat a meal, have something to drink with some sugar in it and turn their labors around. Most people aren’t super hungry in labor, digestion slows down, many people feel nauseous, but it is still important to take sips of a drink and occasional bites of food for some quick energy. Even if the thought of eating isn’t super appealing, do it anyway to keep your energy up. You never know how long labor will last.
As I am sure you remember from your childbirth education classes, labor has some different stages: Latent or early labor, active labor, transition and pushing. Each stage has some distinct needs and abilities to eat in labor.
In this stage of labor contractions are pretty mild and in between contractions you feel very normal. This is a good time to make sure you eat and drink normally –as you would at any other time- regular meals, sipping fluids, etc.
In this stage of labor contractions get closer together and more intense, nausea definitely may be present, and your interest in eating will definitely be decreased. Even though you may not want to eat, it is still important to keep eating periodically. Your digestion slows down in labor so you definitely don’t want to eat a ton, but do take the occasional bite of something easily digestible for some quick energy.
This is usually the most intense time in labor. This is when you are finishing up dilating and baby is descending into the birth canal. This is usually the time when people in labor absolutely do not want to eat. This is a common time for throwing up also. In this stage you can skip the eating, but to keep your energy up for the next stage – when you get to push – you should sip things with sugar in them or have a little honey washed down with some electrolyte water.
This is the phase of labor where you can get down to business and get to help the process along. Eating and drinking in this stage is essential if it lasts a long time as pushing is hard work and uses a lot of energy. Drinking electrolyte drinks with sugar and bites of high-energy foods can help you have the energy to do the work of pushing.
Because of the slowed digestion and nausea that goes along with labor, people are not necessarily hungry in labor. Most people give me nasty looks and report that nothing sounds good when we offer options of what to eat. Even if nothing sounds good, here are some ideas of what to eat in labor – remember to choose things that are easy down and easy up in case you do end up vomiting.
- Oatmeal – one of the best things to eat in labor, it can be instant or made on the stove, add some butter to it and if it is plain some brown sugar, honey or maple syrup for extra oomph.
- Applesauce – yes, you know those pouches of applesauce that your kid eats? Those are great and easy to get down in labor.
- Fresh fruit – this is another compact source of energy with natural sugar and easy to get down. Have a grape or a bite of banana in between contractions. Think of fruits that you don’t have to chew much to get down.
- Smoothie – Another great way to get some energy is to do a protein shake or smoothie.
- Broth – homemade if possible, has a lot of electrolytes and trace minerals as well as fat to help you in labor
- Eggs – scrambled seems to work the best, but if you are wanting savory rather than sweet this can be an easy fix
- Toast – with butter and honey or jelly, if you can chew, to get some carbs for energy
- Honey – in the later stages of labor sometimes just a little honey is all you need to get what you need to keep going. Honey sticks or just a spoonful works well!
- Gu – this is the stuff marathon runners use while they run, it is appropriately balanced with electrolytes
What to Drink in labor
Drinking in labor is essential if you are going to stay hydrated to keep your muscles working well and to keep your energy up. Dehydration can lead to problems in the effectiveness of your labor and other possible issues—fever, increased maternal heart rate, increased fetal heart rate, etc. Alternating plain water with electrolyte fluids in labor is a good idea to stay hydrated and prevent hyponatremia or water intoxication in labor. It can be a good idea to have a variety of drinks on hand in case you get sick of any of them. Good things to drink in labor other than water:
- Electrolyte water – this is just plain water with added electrolytes. Switch to this once you are in active labor, SmartWater is the most common brand, but any will do
- Gatorade – it has crap like high fructose corn syrup in it, but sometimes that is what you need and the electrolyte balance is good
- Recharge – like Gatorade but without the high fructose corn syrup
- Vitamin Water – like Gatorade, it has some sugar and flavor in it
- Coconut water – widely available at most stores now
- Juice – sometimes plain old juice is what you need for some extra energy as well as fluids
- Make your own! There are lots of recipes online for homemade “laborade” try some out and see what you like.
When not to eat in labor
As with anything, there are sometimes exceptions to the rules. If you are on any medications in labor – like Pitocin for induction, narcotics for pain relief or have an epidural, you may have limited options as the risk of surgery increases with these interventions. Talk to your provider about when you can and can’t eat in labor to know what your options are.