Risks of Eating and Drinking During Labor: Hamburgers vs. Ice Chips

Is this a good choice for a snack before going to the hospital? Probably not. Image by lockstockb

Is this a good choice for a snack before going to the hospital? Probably not. Image by lockstockb

It is a very common question asked by many pregnant women, “Why can’t I have anything to eat while I’m in labor?” The answer is simple, really – you might aspirate if you end up undergoing a C-section or some other emergency surgery due to complications. Pain medication and simply being in labor can cause nausea, which can result in vomiting. If you’re under anesthesia you may end up breathing in your vomit during surgery.

Common Obstetrical Emergencies

Even if you think you will only have a vaginal delivery, you never know what could happen during labor. Spontaneous labor with no interventions to “speed up” labor, emergencies can still happen.

Emergencies that may happen during or immediately after birth are placenta abruption, uterine rupture, placenta previa, umbilical cord prolapse, fetal distress, shoulder dystocia, post partum hemorrhage, and uterine inversion. Whether you think you’re in a high-risk category or not, in labor and delivery, the staff must be prepared for the anything.

General Anesthesia and Aspiration

No solid food – or even liquids for some women in labor. The ACOG, American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, says, “expert consensus supports the recommendation that women undergoing a planned cesarean delivery or elective postpartum tubal ligation after vaginal birth should have no solid food from six to eight hours prior to surgery. Pregnant women who have additional risk factors for aspiration, such as morbid obesity or diabetes, and those at high risk for operative delivery (i.e., forceps, vacuum), may need to be restricted from fluid intake on a case-by-case basis.” 

Taking in only ice chips and a very small amount of clear liquids during labor can be traced back to the 1940s, when C-sections were performed under general anesthesia. During labor, IV fluids hydrate the patient. If you’re not in active labor yet, and you want to eat before you come to the hospital (unless you are a scheduled cesarean section), go ahead. Just don’t eat a greasy meal, or you may see it again later on, if active labor comes on suddenly.

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Can I Eat During Labor?

The goal for childbirth is always a healthy mother and a healthy baby. Restricting food and drinks for a short time may feel inconvenient if you’re in labor for a long time, but it is only going to help the labor and delivery staff achieve that goal, and could keep you safe in the event of an emergency surgery.


American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. Committee on Obstetric Practice. (2009, reaffirmed 2011). Accessed April 24, 2013.

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  1. With my oldest son, I developed pre-eclampsia and was sent to the hospital after a routine visit with my OB/GYN. I had eaten breakfast at about 6:30AM, arrived at the hospital around 10:30AM and my son was born the following morning at 4:30AM. By the time he was born, I was starving! I wish I had thought to eat a little something before I had gone to the hospital, but as a first time mom, eating was not what I was thinking about, and I assumed labor wouldn’t take so long. I remember after my son was born, asking the nurse if I could eat now, and I ate a granola bar or something and promptly threw it up. There are a lot of things about childbirth (both the natural part and any medications you have to/choose to take) that can cause nausea, and my experience confirms that.

  2. My daughter craved ice cream one night. Mick and her best friend went out for ice cream then laid down on the floor to watch a movie. Her girlfriend complained that her stomach hurt from the ice cream, that she was having stomach cramps. Micky said, “Mine does, too, but I think the cramps are coming every two minutes.” They rushed her to the ER and my granddaughter arrived just as I ran into the room twenty minutes later. (All the women in my family have their babies very quickly–except me! Lol!)

  3. I have 4 children. The first three I had at home with a midwife. My midwife allowed me to eat whatever I felt up to eating. I usually ate something light, because I had long labors( one was 40hrs long!) My fourth I had a hospital for various reasons. I wanted a tubal afterward, I had gestational diabetes, and the insurance decided not to pay for home births anymore. I was also induced at 39 weeks with the last one because of the gestational diabetes. I knew they would not allow me to eat, so I snuck in a banana. I am so glad I did, because after a 10 hour labor, they scheduled a tubal the next morning. There was an emergancy c-cection in the morning and my surgery was delayed until 1pm! I ended up going nearly 30hrs with nothing to eat, but that banana! I


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