Should you eat during labour?

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 Photo: iStock

As many, many mothers will attest, labour can be an incredibly long process. On average, a first time mother will labour for up to 14 hours – but of course there are epic labours that go on even longer, and some that are short and sweet.

Given that that you're going to be labouring for a while, often through times you'd be eating a meal – or at least a snack – is it necessary to eat?

Well, a new study from the US has found that for healthy women, eating a light meal during labour is a good idea.

Researchers from the American Society of Anesthesiologists analysed 385 studies published since 1990 that focused on women who gave birth in hospital. And their findings suggest that the energy and caloric demands of labouring women are similar to those of marathon runners.

Christopher Harty, co-author of the study, says that without adequate nutrition during labour, women's bodies begin to use fat as an energy source. This increases acidity of the blood in the mother and infant, potentially reducing uterine contractions, and leading to longer labour and lower health scores in newborns.

On top of this, the research suggests that fasting during labour can cause emotional stress, potentially moving blood away from the uterus and placenta – which also lengthens labour and can contribute to distress of the baby.

As a result, the study's authors suggest that healthy women eat a light meal during labour. "This [will] give expectant mothers more choices in their birthing experience and prevents them from being calorie deficient, helping provide energy during labour," explains Harty.

In Australia, guidelines on eating during labour vary from hospital to hospital. In some places, women aren't allowed to eat at all, and fluids are limited to just plain water. There is a reason behind it, as midwife Lisa Berson explains: "Some hospitals restrict food during labour so that if a woman should need a c-section she won't have eaten recently, which is better for anaethestics."

Regardless of hospital policy, Berson says that in her experience most women don't actually want to eat during labour anyway. "The digestion system actually shuts down during labour – this is why vomiting or bowel motions occur in early labour, to make room for the baby to birth," she says.

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Still, Berson isn't surprised by the findings of the study. "Labouring women need to gain as much energy sources in preparation for birth," she says.

So what sorts of foods would work well during labour? Berson recommends simple and light options such as sandwiches, soup, nuts, natural muesli/bars, lollies, and sports drinks such as Gatorade.

"These are all good for women to have if they're feeling peckish or if they need an energy boost," she says.

"But from personal experience, the labouring woman prefers to crunch on ice or drink water or other liquids instead of eating huge amounts of food.

Of course, some women will always take things a step further. Janice Foley was 10 days overdue when she went into labour – at a top Sydney restaurant. Despite regular contractions she was determined to finish her meal before leaving the restaurant.

"The waiters did look quite concerned at one point," she says. "But I knew there was plenty of time and I was really enjoying my meal!"