Despite the longstanding, widespread practice of restricting women's food and fluid intake during labor, a large-scale analysis in The Cochrane Library finds no need for these restrictions and supports women eating and drinking as they please.
"There should be no hospital policies which restrict fluids and foods in labor; nor should formal guidelines tell women to take specific foods, such as energy drinks," states one of the study's authors, Gillian ML Gyte, M.Phil, of the department of women and children's health at the University of Liverpool in the U.K.
She and her co-authors point out that prior research has shown that many women in labor do not feel like eating, but for others the notion of long hours without any food or drink can be anxiety provoking.
In some cultures, women eat and drink as they like during labor both for nourishment and comfort. However, in Western industrialized societies, physicians have often restricted women's fluid and food intake during labor in case a caesarean section and general anesthesia are necessary later. The restrictions largely grew out of one 1940s study, which showed that during general anesthesia, women run an increased risk of having their stomach contents enter their lungs, which can be dangerous or even life-threatening. But today, caesarean sections are most often performed using regional anesthesia and safer, more modern general anesthesia techniques reduce the risk of aspiration. Women on food and fluid restrictions often do receive ice chips and/or intravenous (IV) fluids but IV fluids themselves come with medical risks.
The meta-analysis included five studies with a combined total of 3,130 women; all five involved women considered at low-risk for needing general anesthesia during labor. The analysis was dominated by one large trial involving 2,443 women.