Eating During Labour: Study Into Whether It's Safe Or Not Hailed A 'Breakthrough'

Is It Safe For Women To Eat During Labour?

Women should be allowed to eat during labour, according to a new study.

The research by the American Society Of Anesthesiologists revealed women could benefit from eating a light meal during labour.

This contradicts traditional medical advice stating women should avoid eating or drinking during labour because they might inhale liquid or food into their lungs, which can cause pneumonia.

Dr Helen Webberley, GP for Oxford Online Pharmacy, hails the new study as a "breakthrough".

"There has been very little evidence for why women should fast during labour and many women find the ordeal so physically draining that a light snack would certainly help them on their way to motherhood," she told HuffPost UK Parents.

The researchers analysed 385 studies published in 1990 (or later) that focused on women who gave birth in hospital and found that the energy and caloric demands of women in labour are similar to those of marathon runners.

Christopher Harty, co-author of the study and a medical student at Memorial University in Canada, said that medical staff should now make changes in practice and "work together to assess each patient individually".

"Those they determine are at low risk for aspiration can likely eat a light meal during labour," he said.

A light meal could include fruit, light soups, toast, light sandwiches (no large slices of meat), juice and water.

"This gives expectant mothers more choices in their birthing experience and prevents them from being calorie deficient, helping to provide energy during labour," added Harty.

The researchers noted that improvements in anaesthesia care have made pain control during labour safer, which reduces risks related to eating. They state that healthy women are unlikely to develop issues by eating or drinking small amounts during labour.

The research, which was presented at the Anesthesiology 2015 annual meeting, unveiled that without adequate nutrition, women’s bodies begin to use fat as an energy source, which increases acidity of the blood in the mother and infant.

This potentially reduces contractions and can lead to a longer labour and lower health scores in newborns.

Additionally, the studies suggest that fasting can cause emotional stress, potentially moving blood away from the uterus and placenta, lengthening labour and contributing to distress of the foetus.

"However, certain factors increase a labouring patient’s risk of aspiration which outweigh the risks of withholding nutrition," said Erin Sprout, co-author of the study and a medical student at Memorial University.

These factors include eclampsia, pre-eclampsia, obesity and the use of opioids to manage labour pain, which delays stomach emptying.

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Dr Webberley explained that the study challenges long held beliefs about eating during labour.

"The worry about eating has, for a long time, been undisputed - almost a rule for rule's sake rather than being based in hard evidence," she said.

"As the study says, the only worry is in the case of eventual aspiration and as very few low-risk pregnancies end in a general anaesthetic, this risk of aspiration is not worth putting all those women through the additional torment of fasting."

Janet Fyle, professional policy advisor for The Royal College of Midwives, said that eating light meals during labour is safe, but it really depends on what stage of labour a woman is in.

"It is fine in the early stages, and they should preferably eat light, non-greasy foods, such as fruits and sandwiches," she said.

"Many women choose not to eat in labour. The important thing is to ensure they are well hydrated, and taking things such as energy drinks often helps."

For Joeli Brearley, founder of Pregnant Then Screwed, eating during labour helped her immensely - and it's something she will be doing in seven weeks time, when she is due to give birth again.

"I don’t recall being told to avoid food and liquid during labour and I managed to distract myself from the pain in the early stages of the childbirth process, by eating a Chinese takeaway," she explains.

"It was so effective, that I was 7cm dilated when I decided to go to hospital.

"Labour is often a very long and exhausting process, so food and drink could help to provide that extra reserve of energy required to help you cope."

She continues: "Ultimately, the mental and physical health of the mother is paramount to a successful delivery, if there are no good medical reasons to avoid eating during labour, then the benefits of eating are obvious.

"After all it may be a long time before you eat again."

But she says at the end of the day, it's down to the mother and her preferences.

"As long as the mother has all the information to hand then she can make her own decisions about what is best for her and the delivery of her child."

In seven weeks time, she will be having a home birth. She says: "I'll make sure I have lots of tasty treats available to keep me distracted during the early stages."