Jan. 20, 2010 -- There is little medical justification for telling women in labor not to eat or drink, a review of the research finds.
For many decades, the prevailing practice in childbirth has been to restrict food and fluids during labor to little more than ice chips. This was largely due to concerns about aspiration of stomach contents into the lungs of women given general anesthesia during delivery.
But very few women receive general anesthesia during childbirth these days, even when they deliver by cesarean section. And changes in anesthesia practices over the years have reduced the vomiting risk.
As a result, doctors have begun to relax once-strict policies about eating and drinking during labor.
"We are, as we speak, in the process of re-evaluating our practice, as I believe other hospitals are," high-risk obstetrician Jeffrey Ecker, MD, of Massachusetts General Hospital tells WebMD. "We are trying to find a balance between what makes patients happy and comfortable and what makes the anesthesiologist comfortable."
Eating and Drinking: 'Let Women Decide'
In the newly published review, conducted for the nonprofit Cochrane Collaboration, researchers examined five studies in which a total of 3,130 women were followed through childbirth.
All of the women were considered to have a low risk for needing general anesthesia when they entered labor.
Taken as a whole, the studies showed no evidence of any risk or benefit associated with eating or drinking during labor.
One of the largest studies included in the analysis was published just last March.
Researchers followed 2,426 women with a low risk of obstetric complications through delivery and found that those who ate lightly during labor and those who only had water had similar lengths of labor and rate of C-section deliveries.
The women who ate were no more likely to vomit than women who did not.
"Since the evidence shows no benefit or harms, there is no justification for [prohibiting eating and drinking] during labor, provided women have a low risk for complications," study researcher Mandisa Singata, MD, of South Africa's East London Hospital Complex, says in a news release. "Women should be able to make their own decisions about whether they want to eat or drink during labor or not."
Obstetricians' Group: Drinking OK, Eating Isn't
Last summer, the nation's largest group representing obstetricians officially relaxed its restrictions on fluid intake during labor.
According to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG), women with uncomplicated pregnancies may now drink "modest' amounts of clear liquids such as water, juices, carbonated beverages, tea, black coffee, or sports drinks.
But the group still recommends against eating solid food during labor.
"Allowing laboring women more than a plastic cup of ice is going to be welcome news for many," Massachusetts General Hospital ob-gyn William Barth Jr., MD, said in a news release at the time. "As for the continued restriction on food, the reality is that eating is the last thing most women are going to want to do since nausea and vomiting during labor is quite common."
Ecker agrees that most of his patients have no interest in food during labor, but he says some do.
"A light meal early in labor may be appropriate for women with a low risk for obstetric complications," he says. "But nobody should be ordering a double cheeseburger from the cafeteria during labor."
The Cochrane Collaboration is an international, nonprofit group that assesses health care policy by reviewing the best available research.