A new review of studies ("systematic review") released last week and published in the journal Obstetrics & Gynecology reports that it is not only safe for women to eat during labor, but it is associated with shorter labor times! Though the study can't prove if eating during labor was the specific cause for a shorter labor, we do know that "If we’re well hydrated and have adequate carbohydrate in our body, our muscles work better," said lead author Dr. Vincenzo Berghella. And of course, the uterus is a muscle!
This information is key for birthing people in the United States as it is standard policy to restrict food and drink in labor at most hospitals. The systematic review looked at 10 trials that included 3,982 laboring women. The results they found amounted to the following:
Women with low-risk singleton pregnancies [pregnancy with one baby] who were allowed to eat more freely during labor had a shorter duration of labor. A policy of less restrictive food intake [allowing women to eat] during labor did not influence other obstetric or neonatal outcomes nor did it increase the incidence of vomiting. Operative delivery rates were similar.
The biggest concern about eating and drinking during labor, historically, has been the fear of a person vomiting during surgery under general anesthesia (in other words, if a cesarean performed under general anesthesia -- which is very uncommon in current day -- were required) and then choking and aspirating the contents. In this review, there were found to be no adverse affects on mother or baby when eating during labor, nor did it increase the incident of vomiting.
While no official policies have yet changed from these results, the information provides a key talking point for you with your care provider and place of birth. Evidence from several quality studies has shown that eating and drinking during labor is safe and can provide possible benefits. In my experience as a Lamaze educator and doula, people who are in labor for long periods of time (it's common for first-time labors to last 12-24 hours or more), maintain more energy and strength when they are well hydrated and nourished.
If eating and drinking during labor is important to you, open a discussion with your care provider. Go on a hospital tour and find out about the policy. Decide, based on the information that's available, how you will prepare for and support your birth experience.