Many women wonder if they can eat during the early stages of labor. Eating during early labor can help women stay nourished and keep their energy up for the hard work ahead. However, there are some important things to consider when deciding whether or not to eat in early labor.
What is early labor?
Early labor is the very first phase of the birthing process before active labor begins. This stage is characterized by light, sporadic contractions that can last for several hours or even days. During early labor:
- Contractions are mild and irregular, coming every 5-20 minutes
- Contractions last about 30-45 seconds
- Cervix begins thinning out (effacement) and opening up (dilation)
- Many women are still comfortable at home
Early labor is a good time to rest up, hydrate, and eat to prepare for the active labor ahead when contractions become longer, stronger, and closer together making it difficult to eat or drink.
Why eating during early labor can be beneficial
Eating a light meal or snack during early labor can provide energy and stamina for the hard work of labor. Benefits of eating in early labor include:
- Energy: The process of labor and delivery requires a lot of energy. Eating can help provide the calories needed to stay strong through hours of contractions.
- Stamina: Early labor can last a long time, even days for some women. Keeping up fluid and nutrition can prevent exhaustion as labor progresses.
- Strength for pushing: Active labor and pushing typically require several hours of intense effort. Nutrition can help muscles continue to contract strongly.
- Avoid irritation: Low blood sugar can cause dizziness, nausea, and vomiting during labor. Eating may help avoid this.
- Recovery: A woman needs energy to recover quickly from the stress of childbirth. Eating well ahead of time can help.
Foods that may be beneficial
If opting to eat during early labor, there are some smart food choices to provide the most energy and hydration:
- Water: Staying hydrated is crucial when fasting is not an option. Sip water regularly to stay hydrated.
- Ice chips: These provide hydration and are easy to consume slowly between contractions.
- Sports drinks: The carbohydrates and electrolytes can provide energy and prevent dehydration.
- Popsicles: The cold treat can hydrate and provide a little nourishment.
- Fruit: Bananas, berries, melons, and other fruits offer quick carbohydrates.
- Yogurt: A good protein and carbohydrate source that is easy to digest.
- Soup: Broth soups provide hydration as well as some calories and minerals.
- Toast: Dry whole grain or wheat toast is easy to eat and digest.
- Oatmeal: The complex carbs provide slow burning energy to last through labor.
- Granola bars: Offer carbohydrates and protein in an easy to eat form.
Avoid heavy, greasy, or sugary foods as they take longer to digest and may cause nausea during labor. Spicy or acidic foods can cause heartburn as well.
Reasons providers may recommend no eating
Some care providers advise against eating anything once labor begins and others restrict eating to the early stages only. Here are some reasons eating may be restricted:
- Risk of aspiration: In case an emergency c-section becomes necessary after eating, food in the stomach could potentially be breathed into the lungs when anesthesia is administered.
- Nausea and vomiting: For some women, contractions along with anxiety can cause nausea. Eating could worsen it.
- Changes digestion: Blood flow is diverted away from the digestive system during labor. Food may not digest well.
- Provides rest: For stalled or early labor, not allowing food encourages the woman to rest and conserve energy.
- Prolonged labor: Some providers believe eating can prolong early labor instead of progressing to active labor.
- Mess and distraction: Food could be messy and distracting as labor progresses and the woman is no longer able to eat.
To reduce risks of aspiration, some providers recommend no solid foods and only clear fluids during labor.
Tips for eating in early labor
If you plan to eat in early labor, keep the following tips in mind:
- Talk to your provider about their recommendations on eating.
- Eat light, easily digestible foods like yogurt, soup, toast.
- Drink plenty of fluids like water, juice, ice chips.
- Avoid heavy, spicy, greasy, or fried foods.
- Eat slowly and nibble between contractions.
- Avoid food once contractions are strong, consistent, and less than 5 minutes apart.
- Do not lie flat for at least 2 hours after eating.
- Stop eating if you start feeling nauseated.
- Do not eat at all if you need an emergency c-section.
When to stop eating
Most experts recommend stopping any oral intake once active labor begins and contractions are intense, frequent, and progressing toward delivery. This is because:
- Contractions will be too difficult to talk or eat through.
- Nausea and vomiting are more likely as labor intensifies.
- Risk of aspiration increases closer to delivery.
- Focus should be on working through contractions.
Oral intake is usually stopped if contractions are less than 5 minutes apart and becoming difficult to breathe and talk through. This signals the transition from early to active labor. Some other signs that oral intake should be stopped include:
- Water breaks
- Bloody show
- Strong urge to push
- Nausea or vomiting
At this point, providers will recommend ice chips and sips of water to prevent dehydration but no food consumption until after delivery.
Once oral intake stops, intravenous (IV) fluids may be offered. Reasons they are given include:
- Prevent dehydration
- Give energy and electrolytes
- Prevent low blood pressure
- Treat low blood sugar
- Correct ketosis from starving
Fluids typically given in an IV are:
- Lactated Ringer’s solution – electrolyte mixture
- Normal saline – contains sodium and chloride
- 5% or 10% dextrose in normal saline – provides glucose for energy
IVs ensure hydration and energy to make it through delivery. However, IV fluids will not provide much in terms of nutrition for recovery so eating soon after birth is still important.
Eating shortly after delivery
Once baby is born and any stitches are complete, eating can resume. Many providers encourage eating shortly after to:
- Regain energy expended during delivery
- Promote healing and recovery
- Stimulate breastmilk production
- Stabilize blood sugar
- Prevent nausea and dizziness from inadequate intake
Foods that are appropriate immediately after delivery include:
- Protein shakes
A new mother’s first meal is joyful food that provides nourishment to start recovering, breastfeed successfully, and bond with her new baby.
Special cases where eating is prohibited
In some cases, a woman may not be allowed to eat at all during labor. Situations where no food is permitted include:
- Scheduled c-section: Since general anesthesia will be used, doctors want the woman’s stomach completely empty.
- Diabetic mother: Strict glucose control is needed to prevent newborn complications.
- Preeclampsia: Eating can pose risks for severely high blood pressure.
- Vomiting or nausea: Unable to keep food down so no oral intake.
- Epidural in place: Only ice chips allowed in case emergency c-section is needed.
- Bowel obstruction: Eating could cause rupture or aspiration risks.
In these cases, nutrition will be supported through IV fluids when needed. Any special dietary needs should be discussed with a provider to determine appropriate options.
During early labor when contractions are still mild, eating light foods can provide energy for the strenuous work of labor. However, most providers recommend discontinuing oral intake once active labor begins and contractions become frequent, intense, and closer together. At this point, the risk of nausea, vomiting, and aspiration increases. Ice chips and sips of water are recommended for hydration but no solid foods.
If oral intake stops, IV fluids can provide hydration, electrolytes, and energy until after delivery when eating can resume. Eating soon after birth helps new mothers recover and have the strength to breastfeed. However, in some high-risk situations, a woman may be advised to avoid any oral intake throughout labor. By understanding the benefits and risks of eating in early versus active labor, women can work with their providers to determine the best beverage and nutrition options throughout the process.
Frequently Asked Questions
Why can I eat during early labor but not active labor?
During early labor, contractions tend to be mild and far apart enough that a woman can still eat and drink between them. As labor progresses to the active phase, contractions become too strong, frequent, and distracting to allow for eating. At this point, the risk of choking, vomiting, or aspiration increases as well.
What happens if I vomit during labor after eating?
Vomiting during labor is not uncommon due to pain, anxiety, and changes in digestion and absorption. If vomiting occurs after eating, food particles could potentially be inhaled into the lungs leading to aspiration pneumonia. This risk is one reason providers recommend no solid food during active labor.
How soon after giving birth can I eat?
Most healthy women can resume a normal diet right after giving birth. Eating within an hour after delivery is encouraged to help the mother recover and provide energy for breastfeeding. Food can be eaten right after any stitching is completed and vital signs are stable.
Can I drink coffee during labor?
Caffeinated beverages like coffee are not recommended during labor. Caffeine can cross the placenta and affect the baby’s heart rate. Coffee can also contribute to dehydration and acidity in the stomach which are not desired during labor. Hydrating fluids like water, juice and ice chips are better options.
What if I get hungry during active labor?
Once active labor begins, hunger is rarely an issue due to pain, nausea, and focus on contractions. If a woman is hungry during active labor, providers typically recommend only ice chips or sips of water or juice. IV fluids can also help provide energy. Solid foods are avoided once labor is intense to reduce risks.