Getting ready to welcome your baby in this world doesn’t just imply packing your hospital bag: it also means you need to get ready for what could be the most intense physical challenge you’ll ever face. After all, they don’t call it labour for nothing! This article will give you some nutrition tips before, during and after labour.
Prepping yourself for labour
You’re probably aware that adopting healthy eating habits and being active throughout your pregnancy can shorten and facilitate labour. So here are some more specific tips:
Eat fresh and unsweetened dates
According to a 2011 study published in the Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology, it appears that dates reduce the need for drugs such as prostin/oxytocin used to initiate labour or help it progress. In the study, 69 expecting women were asked to consume 6 dates daily during the 4 weeks prior to their estimated delivery date. Compared to the control group who did not consume dates, these women had a more dilated cervix upon admission at the hospital and spent almost 7 fewer hours in labour.
Get enough zzzz’s
Your pregnancy diet could be the definition of a healthy diet but lack of sleep could thwart your odds of an easy delivery. American scientists found that pregnant women who had fewer than six hours of sleep at night went through considerably longer labour and had a 4.5 times higher risk of requiring a caesarean section compared to those who slept a minimum of 7 hours per night. Women who had 6 to 7 hour nighttimes’ rest and those with a severely disrupted sleep pattern were 3.7 times and 5.2 times more likely to need a caesarean section (respectively).
Try Kegel exercises
These exercises aim to strengthen the pelvic floor and vaginal muscles, preparing them for the strong contractions of labour. A 2004 study published in the British Medical Journal found that kegel exercises facilitated labour. In the research involving 311 women, those who did kegel exercises regularly during the last few months of pregnancy experienced a shorter pushing stage (the second stage of labour). A prolonged second stage can cause tears and augments the risks for a caesarean delivery. Before you try any exercise routine, be sure to get your GP’s green light.
Choose healthy carbs
Carbohydrates are the body’s main source of energy so make sure to get enough of this fuel throughout pregnancy and the few days prior to labour. However, instead of refined carbs and sugar-laden foods, go for wholesome grains, fresh or frozen fruits and veggies, pulses, grains, nuts, seeds and dairy products — it’s never too late to get some extra vitamins, minerals and antioxidants.
Eating versus fasting during labour
To eat or not to eat? Once the contractions kick in the answer depends on you and your OBGYN — many medical practitioners are okay with eating throughout labour as long as you’re eating light and you’re having an uncomplicated labour. However, others may prescribe strict NPO (nil per oral) whilst others may give their consent for ice chips or clear liquids only. Get your OBGYN’s take on this topic before you go into labour; this way you can grab something to eat before you head to the hospital.
Why the eating ban?
There’s a theory that any food that remains in your digestive tract might cause aspiration should you need urgent anaesthesia. However, research indicates that the risk of aspiration is minuscule thanks to improved anaesthesia techniques. But if your doctor asks you to fast once you’re in labour, it’s best to adhere to her/his advice.
So, is it safe to eat?
According to two studies involving a large number of participants, women who enjoy a light diet or water during labour are not at increased risks for adverse obstetric or neonatal incidents nor does that practice augment the likelihood of vomiting. The scientists concluded that women should be allowed to decide whether or not to eat and drink during labour.
Labour is physically hard work — fuelling up and keeping yourself well hydrated can actually make the whole process easier. ‘Labouring’ on empty for a prolonged time can cause your body to go into ketosis, a natural process during which the body uses up its fat stores for energy purposes. Not only can exhaustion make those last pushes harder but the ketone bodies formed during ketosis can cause light-headedness, headaches, nausea and vomiting.
A glimpse at your labour ‘menu’
Nothing heavy here — it’s unlikely that you’ll feel like feasting once the first contractions start anyway. Large meals, spicy, smelly, fried or greasy foods and soft drinks are best avoided: you certainly don’t need any heartburn or the runs. Instead, try to eat a light snack every hour for a more gradual release of energy.
Here’s what you can have (check with your GP first though):
Liquids: Sip slowly
- Water: If you don’t fancy plain water, make some flavoured water ahead (simply add some lemon wedges, fruit puree, mint leaves or frozen fruits to water and allow to infuse for several hours).
- Fruit or green smoothies: You may want to skip those containing nut butters.
- Clear soups or broths: remember that those high in sodium will dehydrate you.
- Fruit juices or squash: Choose those without added sugar since a very sweet drink can leave you super thirsty.
- Fresh fruits: High fibre fruits such as bananas, raspberries or blackberries will provide you with a regular release of energy.
- Wholegrain toast/biscuits with fruit jam or honey: For a longer energy boost.
- Apple sauce or home-made jello: These are easier to ingest and will provide a good energy kick.
- Ice lollies or fruit-only sorbets: To keep you hydrated and energised.
- A small portion of plain pasta
Listen to your body throughout the labour process and when you don’t feel like eating or drinking anymore, just stop.
That Bump’s a Baby Now
Immediately after childbirth, you’ll either feel like taking a well-deserved nap or you may feel ravenous. Again, just go with whatever your body is telling you.
Time to refuel
- Make sure to drink lots of water: Keeping yourself well-hydrated will help prevent constipation and fatigue and can also help with bloating.
- Load up on iron: If you feel too weak to dig in a steak or drumstick, try a bowl of lentil soup with a vitamin C rich food to boost iron absorption.
- Boost your immune system: Enjoy any fruit or veggie you like — you’ll need these vitamins and minerals to take care of your bundle of joy. The fibre will also help keep constipation at bay.
- Use the Eatwell Guide as an eating guide.
Not the time to diet
You’ll probably want to get rid of the baby weight as soon as possible but remember that your utmost priority is to take care of your baby and allow your stressed out body to recover from these strenuous nine months.
Al-Kuran et al (2011) The effect of late pregnancy consumption of date fruit on labour and delivery. J Obstet Gynaecol. 31(1):29-31.
Lee KA and Gay CL (2004) Sleep in late pregnancy predicts length of labor and type of delivery. Am J Obstet Gynecol. 191(6):2041-2046.
O'Sullivan et al (2009) Effect of food intake on obstetric outcome: randomised controlled trial. BMJ. 338:b784.
Salvesen KA and Mørkved S (2004) Randomized controlled trial of pelvic floor muscle training during pregnancy. BMJ. 329(7462):378–380.
Singata M, Tranmer J and Gyte GML (2013) Restricting oral fluid and food intake during labour. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. DOI:10.1002/14651858.CD003930.pub3.