What to Know About Eating and Drinking During Labor

Medically Reviewed by Dan Brennan, MD on July 30, 2022
5 min read

Bringing a baby into the world can be one of the most exciting times in a person's life. But there's no denying that giving birth is also a complex experience with a steep learning curve.

In the United States, 3,613,647 children were born in 2020. For years, eating and drinking during labor were limited to ice chips and water due to medical concerns. Doctors worried that those who ate and drank during labor were at high risk of aspiration — inhaling food or water into the lungs during general anesthesia. 

During labor, aspiration can be caused by relaxed muscles in the stomach due to high levels of the hormone progesterone. The uterus can also press against the stomach, raising the risk of aspiration.

Being unable to take in nutrients during such a physically trying time has caused distress among people giving birth. The physical demands and complication risks of labor make it one of the most taxing experiences the human body can endure. 

Delivering a baby takes a lot of energy, similar to a person running a marathon. On average, labor for a person's first child lasts around 12 to 24 hours. For later births, it usually lasts between 8 and 10 hours.

The average person only goes 2 to 3 waking hours without eating to sustain their energy, even when they aren’t involved in physical activity. But labor generally lasts for much longer periods of time.

In the face of these concerns, you may be pleased to learn that rules on eating and drinking during labor have shifted. Hospitals are relaxing their regulations on this topic.

Strict rules on eating and drinking during labor began in 1946 with Dr. Curtis Mendelson. He wanted to avoid aspiration in pregnant people under general anesthesia by keeping them from eating or drinking during labor. 

This was a helpful discovery that prevented many deaths, so the rule became a medical precedent. Doctors instructed their patients to avoid eating or drinking during labor to guard against the aspiration risks that accompany pregnancy and general anesthesia.

General anesthesia is the medication used when a patient needs to be completely unconscious during a medical procedure. During the years Dr. Mendelson practiced, using general anesthesia was the norm for people in labor. But it's now only used for emergencies like C-sections because it’s best for people to be conscious and active while in labor.

In 2015, the American Society of Anesthesiologists released a study that redefined how we view eating and drinking during labor. Citing advances in anesthesia, this study stated that there is now less risk of aspirating during labor because general anesthesia is no longer commonly used.

Healthcare professionals today usually rely on regional anesthesia during labor instead. This includes procedures like epidurals and spinal blocks, which numb certain parts of the body and don't put you to sleep. 

Researchers found only one case of aspiration during labor in the U.S. between 2005 and 2013, which shows that aspiration during labor is quite rare. In this case, the woman also had pre-eclampsia, making her pregnancy high risk. For healthy, low-risk pregnancies, the risk of aspiration is low. 

If you're healthy with a low-risk pregnancy, a couple of food and drink options are available to choose from during labor. Specifically, it's best to stick to clear liquids, such as: 

  • Water
  • Tea
  • Carbonated beverages
  • Clear broth 

Depending on your hospital’s regulations, light meals like soup, toast, or fruit may also be okay during early labor. Above all, doctors still recommend that you eat light and preferably during early labor rather than in the later stages. 

Foods to avoid during labor include rich foods such as large pieces of meat and heavy meals. Though rare, if aspiration does occur during labor, solid foods are more dangerous than liquids. Dairy and acidic beverages like juice should also be avoided because they can upset your stomach during labor.

These new rules on eating and drinking during labor have pleased many pregnant people because of the potential health benefits of this practice. Labor's strenuous nature means it requires a lot of energy, and your energy can be boosted by taking in nutrients during delivery. Some studies have even shown that eating and drinking can benefit the labor experience. 

One study found that some people with low-risk pregnancies whose eating and drinking were less restricted experienced shorter labor times. They also didn’t have any resulting labor complications, such as aspiration or vomiting. 

Another study discovered that people who were only allowed to eat ice chips — the old precedent — during labor were more likely to have unplanned C-sections than patients with less strict eating and drinking policies during labor. Eating and drinking also increased their comfort and satisfaction during labor, benefitting their overall experience. 

One study analyzed whether drinking something rich in carbohydrates during labor would reduce C-section rates, but the results were inconclusive. However, they did notice that the drink helped ease the subjects' hunger, which impacted their energy and stamina.

People with high-risk pregnancies or those likely to need general anesthesia should not eat or drink during labor. This includes anyone who:

  • Is having a planned C-section
  • Is at risk of having an emergency C-section
  • Has had a C-section before
  • Is delivering multiple babies
  • Has health issues affecting the pregnancy

These risks will potentially make eating and drinking during labor dangerous. If you're pregnant, consult your doctor ahead of time about whether or not these risks apply to you.

In the face of these new views on eating and drinking during labor, hospital policies will vary. Ask your hospital beforehand about their food and drink policy so you can be aware of their rules. It’s also important to talk with your OBGYN about what you should eat at every step of the way during labor.

Asking your doctor if you're at high risk of having a C-section, general anesthesia, or any other health issues can help you decide whether you can eat or drink during labor. Your doctor should be the person who's most familiar with the details of your pregnancy, and they'll know what’s best for your specific labor plan.