Breathe, Breathe, Bite: Eating During Labor May Be Beneficial

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Eating during labor does not induce harmful reactions; in fact, it may be beneficial in shortening labor duration, suggests a new study.

Contrary to the common practice of curtailing food consumption in most delivery rooms across the country, the new research finds that allowing pregnant women to ingest more than water or ice chips during labor is tied to a 16-minute shorter labor, on average.

Credit: UT Southwestern Medical Center

Additionally, the researchers found no link between food consumption and harmful reactions, such as vomiting or choking.

“We really don’t know how much, if anything, people can eat or drink in labor,” senior author Dr. Vincenzo Berghella of Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia told Reuters.

Previously, Berghella had found that women who were given more than a normal amount of fluid during labor had a faster delivery. “If we’re well hydrated and have adequate carbohydrate in our body, our muscles work better,” Berghella told Reuters.

Past Studies Show No Harm

To find out if food consumption has an impact on delivery, the researchers analyzed a trove of medical literature that assessed the health complications, if any, of nearly 4,000 women who gave birth to a single child.

For example, previous studies that the researchers reviewed assessed more open diets during labor — one allowed women to consume a honey and date syrup, while another placed no restrictions on the women’s diets whatsoever.

Ultimately, the analysis failed to turn up any links between potential health complications and a less-restrictive diet during labor. “No other benefits or harms in obstetric or neonatal outcome were noticed,” write the researchers in the journal Obstetrics & Gynecology.

Related: Complications During Pregnancy May Increase Autism Risk in Children

Prevailing medical wisdom cautions labor-and-delivery facilities to limit food consumption because women receiving an epidural may experience adverse reactions. However, the new study debunks those claims.

“Regurgitation during general anesthesia and Mendelson syndrome did not occur in either group,” write the researchers.

Mendelson syndrome occurs when stomach contents, including gastric juices, aspirate or enter the patient’s lungs.

Some previous studies, including one presented at an annual anesthesiology meeting in 2015, have come to similar conclusions about the non-harm of food intake during labor, yet restricted eating remains commonplace in most hospitals.

The 2015 study found just one reported case of aspiration during labor between 2005 and 2013.  

Related: Groundbreaking Study Offers Glimpse of New Ways to Prevent Preterm Birth

“Physician anesthesiologists and obstetricians should work together to assess each patient individually,” said study co-author Christopher Harty at the time. “Those they determine are at low risk for aspiration can likely eat a light meal during labor. This gives expectant mothers more choices in their birthing experience and prevents them from being calorie deficient, helping to provide energy during labor.”

Healthy women who present no risk of aspiration should ask their treating physicians if they can consume something more substantial than ice chips or water, suggests the study.

Another study on the risks of eating during labor offers food and drink items that women may want to consider – “think jello, popsicles, broth and clear juice,” advises the study, which also recommends toast, fruit and other low-fat items.

Richard Scott
Richard Scott is a health care reporter focusing on health policy and public health. Richard keeps tabs on national health trends from his Philadelphia location and is an active member of the Association of Health Care Journalists.