Fueling up in early labor


You’ve been eating well during pregnancy to support your baby’s growth and development, and maybe you’ve even stockpiled some freezer meals to enjoy once your baby is here and you don’t have time to cook. But have you thought about how to fuel your body during labor? While your labor time is short – at least compared to a 40 week pregnancy – it’s obviously a big event and requires good nutrition to provide energy during labor, childbirth and immediate recovery. Some women compare labor to a marathon, and fueling yourself properly will only help to make the process better by giving you the energy to labor and push (or recover from c-section surgery).

You may have seen movies where the woman in labor is restricted to chomping on ice chips only while she labors in bed. The recommendation for only ice chips while in labor was previously put in place to keep the stomach virtually empty to reduce the slight risk of aspiration if anesthesia becomes necessary for an emergency surgical delivery, which is rare. Now, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) has issued guidelines okaying small amounts of clear liquid for women who are having uncomplicated labors. This includes juice without pulp, clear broth, tea, black coffee, sports drinks, coconut water, and in some cases, Jell-o. Those scheduled for a c-section can have clear liquids up to two hours before surgery. Staying hydrated is especially important as a long labor can make women especially thirsty. Have different beverage options nearby in cups with straws so your partner can easily hold the cup for you while you take sips between contractions.

The current guidelines stop at clear liquids and laboring moms are still advised to stay away from solid food. However, some hospitals are loosening their grip on this recommendation as the likelihood that a laboring mother will aspirate during childbirth is rare. In fact, some doctors are reevaluating their practice and working with moms to find ways to make them more comfortable, even if that means eating lightly in the early stages of labor, assuming they had a low risk, uncomplicated pregnancy.

Speak to your doctor in advance about your options for fuel during labor. Some women have no interest in eating once they’re in more active labor, so have appealing, easy-to-digest foods on hand for early labor. Choose light foods like those listed below that contain complex carbohydrates as opposed to those that are sugary, fatty or fried so you have long-lasting energy for labor.

  • Whole grain/seed crackers
  • Fruit
  • Granola bars
  • Fresh smoothies
  • Bananas/apples with almond butter
  • Yogurt
  • Clear liquids such as 100% apple or white grape juice
  • Whole grain cereals
  • Whole grain pasta
  • Brown rice
  • Cooked whole grain cereal like oatmeal

Some women even pack sport gels or energy blocks (like those that are oftentimes used by long-distance runners and can be found in sporting goods stores) in their hospital bag to provide quick energy and electrolytes in a tiny package that is easy to eat during labor.

Don’t forget your partner! They’ll be glad to have packed bars, nuts or some crackers – nothing with a strong smell that may be off-putting to you – to quickly grab and snack on so they have the energy to support and coach you in your final push of labor.

What to Do

  • Speak to your doctor or midwife about your options for eating and drinking during the early and active stages of labor.
  • Many hospitals are stocked with juice, Jell-O and popsicles. Ask ahead of time and feel free to bring your own when you head to the hospital.
  • If food is approved by your doctor, select light foods that you can easily pack in your hospital bag in advance, such as crackers, bread, granola bars, juice boxes and oatmeal packets.
  • Have foods such as yogurt, fresh fruit, and cooked pasta or rice in a portable bag in your fridge as your due date approaches so you can grab it on the way to the hospital!
  • Have your partner bring easy to eat foods as well.