Why am I not allowed to eat in labor?

Picture this: spending 12 hours exercising without being able to consume any food or drink. That’s essentially what labor has felt like in our recent past. As you prepare for childbirth, you might question whether it’s safe to eat or drink during labor. While many hospitals restrict food intake during active labor, they typically allow fluids. But why the restriction on eating and drinking during this crucial time?

Let’s delve into the historical context of nutrition and hydration during labor, as well as the latest research and recommendations. Here’s a spoiler: hospital and provider policies often deviate from scientific findings. Having a conversation with your doctor or midwife about eating and drinking during labor is crucial.

Why am I not allowed to eat in labor?
Why am I not allowed to eat in labor?

Understanding the Historical Reasons Behind Eating Restrictions During Labor

In the past, conventional medical wisdom dictated the avoidance of food and drink during labor due to concerns about potential vomiting, which could lead to aspiration—a dangerous condition where food or liquid is inhaled into the lungs. Aspiration carries severe risks, including lung complications and even death.

The practice of enforcing “nothing by mouth” or NPO policies dates back to the 1940s when childbirth procedures vastly differed from modern practices. During this era, “twilight sleep” was a common method, involving the administration of a mixture of anesthetic drugs to women during labor. This approach enabled doctors to perform deliveries using techniques such as episiotomies and forceps without the patient retaining any memory of the childbirth experience. Aspiration was a significant concern during both vaginal and Cesarean deliveries. To mitigate this risk, doctors opted to provide intravenous (IV) fluids exclusively, leading to the restriction on eating during labor.

Examining Modern Research Insights on Eating Restrictions During Labor

Significant advancements in anesthesia and childbirth procedures have transformed the landscape of labor since the early 1900s. General anesthesia is now rarely administered during childbirth, except in emergency Cesarean births. Instead, regional anesthetics such as epidurals and spinal anesthesia are predominantly utilized for labor and most Cesarean deliveries. This modern approach allows mothers to remain conscious, interact with their newborn immediately after birth, and retain memories of the experience, both remarkable and challenging.

Modern research, encompassing numerous studies on eating and drinking during labor, has unveiled compelling findings:

– Restricting Food and Drink May Not Be Essential: Recent studies investigating aspiration rates during labor have revealed its rarity. For instance, a study in the United Kingdom permitted individuals to eat and drink during labor, resulting in only one aspiration-related death out of over six million births. Similarly, between 2005 and 2013 in the United States, only one case of aspiration linked to labor and delivery was recorded.

– Unclear Benefits or Harms: While research hasn’t demonstrated clear harm from eating and drinking during labor, it hasn’t thoroughly examined women’s preferences regarding nutrition intake during this crucial period. The potential emotional toll of withholding food and fluids also warrants consideration, as a woman’s satisfaction with her birthing experience is significant.

– No Increased Vomiting Risk: Contrary to popular belief, consuming solid foods and fluids during labor does not exacerbate vomiting.

– Caution for High-Risk Patients: Certain high-risk groups, such as individuals with diabetes, obese women, or those carrying multiples, may need to exercise caution regarding solid food intake during labor. Although the risk associated with solid foods remains low, better anesthetic techniques and reduced use of general anesthesia have contributed to decreased occurrences of aspiration.

– Potential for Shorter Labor: Studies suggest that allowing women with low-risk pregnancies to eat during labor could result in shorter labor durations, with an average reduction of 16 minutes observed across ten studies. Some research even hints at a potential two-hour reduction.

– Eating Small, Frequent Meals: While precise guidelines on the amount of food and water needed during labor are scarce, labor’s energy demands are likened to those of running a marathon. While most women receive IV fluid hydration during labor, its efficacy in providing adequate nutrition and fluid balance remains debatable. Additionally, IV fluids can complicate mobility during labor and may lead to fluid overload.

Official Recommendations Regarding Eating and Drinking During Labor

Medical authorities, including obstetrician-gynecologists, anesthesiologists, and nurse-midwives, stay abreast of current research to offer guidance on nutrition and hydration during labor. Various recommendations exist regarding whether consumption is advisable during this crucial time.

The American Society of Anesthesiology (ASA) advocates for the provision of a light meal for most healthy individuals during labor, emphasizing potential benefits.

The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) suggests that continuous intravenous (IV) fluids may not be necessary for women in labor, with oral hydration being encouraged. However, they advise against solid food intake due to the risk of aspiration.

The American College of Nurse-Midwives (ACNM) provides guidelines for discussing aspiration risk with expectant mothers and empowering them to make informed decisions regarding oral intake during normal labor. Midwives are advised to assess all women for potential delivery complications or heightened aspiration risk.

Despite these recommendations, there remains a lack of consensus among professional organizations, highlighting the need for alignment with scientific evidence. Persistent concerns regarding aspiration risk persist despite research indicating its minimal likelihood. Consequently, practices regarding permissible food and fluid intake during labor vary widely.

Eating During Labor: Is It Allowed?

The question of whether eating during labor is permissible doesn’t have a definitive answer—it’s more of a “maybe.” It’s advisable to have a discussion with your doctor or midwife about your preferences, as each provider may have a different stance. Generally, if you’re giving birth at home or at a birth center, you’re likely free to consume food and beverages according to your desire.

Predicting your appetite during labor is challenging. While some mothers prefer to eat continuously, the urge to eat often diminishes as contractions intensify. The key is to tune in to your body’s cues. If you feel hungry, your body likely needs nourishment and energy. Conversely, if you’re experiencing nausea or vomiting, eating may not be appealing.

Individuals classified as “high-risk” typically won’t be allowed to eat during labor. This category includes those expecting multiples, scheduled for a Cesarean birth, with a history of Cesarean delivery, severe obesity, pre-eclampsia, or diabetes.

In some cases, you may be permitted to eat before receiving an epidural, but afterward, only ice chips or small sips of water are usually permitted. If any concerns arise regarding your baby’s heart rate or complications arise, your provider may advise ceasing food intake.

Drinking During Labor: What’s Permitted?

Generally, you’ll likely have permission to consume clear fluids during labor, regardless of your birthing location. Clear fluids are defined as liquids that are transparent, including water, juice, tea, black coffee, and soda.

However, there are instances where even clear fluids might be restricted. For example, if you have a scheduled Cesarean birth, you may be asked to refrain from eating or drinking for several hours before the procedure. Additionally, if complications arise or your baby isn’t tolerating labor well, your doctor or midwife may advise discontinuing fluid intake due to concerns about the need for a Cesarean delivery.

Insights from a Nurse Midwife

With over 22 years of experience as a nurse midwife, I’ve witnessed a gradual shift in hospital and provider practices towards allowing women to drink and often eat during labor. Every woman’s labor journey is unique, and individual risk factors must be considered. What may benefit one mother may not be suitable for another.

For healthy women experiencing normal labor, I advocate for encouraging them to eat and drink as they desire. Maintaining adequate hydration and nutrition is crucial to prevent the body from resorting to using fat for energy, which can lead to increased acidity levels in both the mother’s and infant’s blood. Insufficient calories can also hinder uterine function, potentially resulting in prolonged labor. Moreover, hunger-induced stress can impede labor progress. Listening to one’s body is paramount, as women who eat during labor often exhibit more energy, particularly during the strenuous pushing phase.

If eating during labor isn’t feasible, ensuring access to a substantial meal post-delivery is essential due to the inevitable hunger pangs. However, obtaining food during late-night hours can pose challenges, necessitating a well-thought-out plan.

Labor-Friendly Food and Drink Suggestions

I recommend bringing your preferred food items to the hospital if you intend to eat during labor, as accessing desired foods can be challenging. Opt for easily digestible options and steer clear of heavy meals like meat or pizza, considering the possibility of vomiting. Here’s a curated list of food and beverages suitable for labor:

  • Fruits and vegetables
  • Bread or crackers
  • Soup
  • Yogurt
  • Energy bars
  • Cereal
  • Light sandwiches
  • Pasta salad
  • Smoothies
  • Coconut water

Numerous studies indicate that under normal circumstances, there’s no compelling reason to abstain from eating or drinking during labor. Consuming light, easily digestible foods and staying hydrated can enhance comfort levels and may even shorten labor duration. Trust your body’s signals and communicate your preferences with your healthcare team.


Why don’t they let you eat during labor?

Eating during labor is often discouraged due to the risk of complications if emergency anesthesia is needed. If a woman were to require surgery or anesthesia unexpectedly, having food in her stomach increases the risk of vomiting and aspirating, which can lead to serious respiratory problems.

Are you allowed to eat in labor?

Policies regarding eating during labor vary among healthcare providers and institutions. Generally, solid foods are discouraged, but clear liquids such as water or ice chips are often permitted to help keep the woman hydrated and provide some energy during labor.

At what point in labor can you not eat?

The restriction on eating solid foods typically applies throughout the active phase of labor, especially if there’s a chance of needing anesthesia. However, clear liquids may be allowed until closer to the active stage, depending on the healthcare provider’s guidelines and the specific circumstances of the labor.

Can you be hungry while in labor?

It’s not uncommon for women to feel hungry during labor, especially if it’s a long process. However, the focus is usually on staying hydrated with clear liquids rather than consuming solid foods. If hunger becomes a significant issue, healthcare providers may offer some solutions or allow specific types of light snacks, depending on the situation.



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