By Emma Mas
Labour is often compared to running a marathon. Runners and labourers prepare physically and mentally for the event, most will experience pain or discomfort, they are encouraged by chants and cheers, and are rewarded with a great achievement. However, runners are encouraged to think wisely about what they eat to fuel and show love for their bodies, while pregnant people preparing for labour are not. A quick Google search for “What to eat before a run” immediately offers suggestions such as a banana and almond butter, turkey slices and cheese, oatmeal and berries, cheese sticks and carrots, and so on. While a search for “What to eat during labour” inevitably opens a discussion on whether labouring people should even be ‘allowed’ to eat. There is a misconception that eating in labour is dangerous and ought to be restricted, but the evidence simply does not support this claim. The freedom to eat in labour is fundamentally a matter of bodily autonomy.
The concern from some medical care providers is that since we cannot predict who may need a Cesarean under general anesthesia, everyone in labour is considered at risk for aspiration. This concern is based on 75 year old research, when anesthesia and airway management practices were quite different, and yet the restriction continues to be sporadically upheld in hospitals today. Current evidence on current practices finds eating in labour poses no harm. Rather, that it promotes well-being: birthing parents are dramatically more satisfied with their labours if encouraged to eat and drink without restriction and eating may even shorten the duration of labour. Let us also keep in mind how rarely Cesareans are performed under general anesthesia, and those that are, benefit from successful airway management to prevent aspiration. Read the article from Evidence-Based Birth, “Evidence on: Eating and Drinking During Labor” for an in- depth discussion of the history and evidence. If your care provider has concerns, remember that both The World Health Organization and The Society of Obstetricians and Gynecologists of Canada affirm the recommendation that low-risk birthing people eat and drink in labour without any restrictions.
So, what are some suggestions for what to eat while labouring? A strategic labourer may follow similar advice as what to eat before a run, considering the impact of carbohydrates and protein to provide energy and stamina. A practical labourer might consider what they can eat while labouring on all-fours or in-between contractions, and opt for handheld quick bites and drinks through bendy straws. A evidence-based labourer might be interested in the research on the oxytocin-like effects of dates on cervical ripening (as a doula, I often make date balls for my clients). An intuitive labourer may listen to what speaks to them in the moment, trusting that their cravings will align with their body’s needs.
There is no one ‘correct’ approach, and I would encourage having a variety of options available. Around the time you prepare your items for labour – whether for home or hospital birth, prepare some items for your fridge and pantry like sliced fruit, nut butter, turkey slices, cheese, almonds, honey sticks, bone broth, and fruit popsicles. There are no wrong answers. For those at the hospital, ask to be directed where the bread, peanut butter, jam, popsicles, jello, juices, and tea are kept. Do try and stay hydrated during labour. The uterus is primarily made of muscle tissue, and will perform at its best when well hydrated. 500-750ml an hour during labour is recommended, but simply offering a sip of water, juice, tea, or electrolyte drink after every contraction will meet that goal.
Plan to have something delicious and nourishing for your first meal after birth: your ultimate comfort food brought you to from a family member or doula, assemble a slow-cooker meal in early labour to be enjoyed with newborn in arms, or rely on the angels of DoorDash and Skip the Dishes. When it comes to eating and drinking in labour, as with all things birth – stay open to a change from your expectations, surround yourself with those who support you, and most importantly, trust and nourish yourself.
Emma Mas is a Vancouver-based birth doula and an Apprentice with The Childbearing Society.