No Silly Questions Part Two

What to Eat While in Labor


Last week I answered Samantha's question about finding a good doctor and hospital and mentioned that both she and Natalie thought their questions were trivial. No they're not. They're the stuff we all think about. Thank you for asking. Believe me, you're only one of about 4 million women wondering the same thing. So, as promised, here's my answer to Natalie's question. In addition, I'm posting a second blog this week in response to a lot of comments I received about my December 10th posting about VBACs. Seems like we've opened up a debate with this one and I'm thrilled. This is an important topic and we need to talk about it loud and clear. Thank you to all of you who wrote in.

Natalie's wondering about those famous ice chips women suck on in labor. She's heard that's all she'll get once she's admitted to the hospital and worries that with a first-time long labor, she'll get hungry and be too worn out for pushing if all she eats is ice chips. Simple enough question but again, it kind of depends. Some hospitals, doctors, midwives and birthing centers are very liberal and generous about feeding patients in active labor. Others are as strict as drill sergeants and ice chips are it. Most are somewhere in the middle and food policies depend on stage of labor, presence of complications and anesthesia. During early labor, especially if you're still at home, eating small amounts of easily digestible food are fine; even recommended. That's a good argument for not coming to the hospital too early. Once labor is well established, we get less generous for several reasons.

1) Women tend to lose their appetites naturally when their gut's getting squeezed every couple of minutes for hours on end (by contractions). Digestion slows down and the food just sits there. They're likely to vomit and while that's unpleasant, it's usually no worse than that.

2) If there are any complications that may make risk for cesarean section higher than standard, we don't want to take someone to surgery with food in their stomachs. If they vomit during surgery, they risk inhaling food particles and getting pneumonia. That totally sucks.

3) Once a patient has an epidural, most hospitals go with "ice chips only" because there's a slightly higher chance of going to the operating room with complications (see 2). Some hospitals are now changing the rules on that and allowing clear liquids and some quickly digestible foods (crackers, etc.). Anesthetists and anesthesiologists have certain standards they have to follow and keeping patients NPO (Nil per Os—Latin for nothing by mouth) is one of those standards.

If we think labor is still in its early stages, most practitioners are supportive of small, light foods. Clear liquids are fine throughout many labors, are absorbed quickly in the stomach and include juice, popsicles, Jello, clear soups, tea and, of course, ice chips.

Regardless of whether you eat or not, nausea and vomiting are extremely common in labor. Contractions, slowed digestion, hormonal rock-and-roll and Mother Nature's natural tendency to "clean house" during labor give a lot of women loose stools and a tendency to barf. It's all part of the glamour of being a mom. Personally, I think it's getting you ready for the body-fluid Olympics of parenting a baby. There will be more pee, poop, spit-up and milk on you than you can even imagine. It's all lovely. The crazy thing is, you won't mind as much as you think you will. The first few blow-out diapers than land in your lap may take your breath away but pretty soon, you'll be grabbing the baby wipes with one hand and wiping yourself off while changing the baby with the other. This is where the phrase SH-- Happens came from.

It's not our goal to make patients weak and hungry and most don't mind not eating much during labor. Women who labor at home have more access to snacks and can make those kinds of decisions for themselves. Once you come to the hospital though, we nurses have to go with your doctor/midwife's standards. We'll feed you really well though after a vaginal birth. Silver lining—food tastes incredible after birth, even if it's only grilled cheese and a milk shake—it's manna from heaven. In some cultures, the meal after delivery is fit for a Queen. Families bring coolers full of food specially made for the new Mom. If your clan isn't up to the job of hauling a feast to your hospital room, no worries, hospital cafeterias have the heads up: Nobody is hungrier than a recently delivered mom who's about to turn into a milk-making machine. Feed her.

So, see, ladies, there are no silly or trivial questions. Keep them coming and good luck Natalie. I'll be rooting for you.

Got a question for Jeanne? E-mail it to and it may be answered in a future blog post.

This Fit Pregnancy blog is intended for educational purposes only. It is not intended to replace medical advice from your physician. Before initiating any exercise program, diet or treatment provided by Fit Pregnancy, you should seek medical advice from your primary caregiver.