Preparing For Labour

British Nutrition Foundation

At 37 weeks, your baby is fully formed. It is at this stage, particularly in first pregnancies, that your baby may begin to move down so that their head is within the pelvis (‘engaged’) as they are preparing to be born. The movement of the baby should make things more comfortable for you, however you may feel increased pressure on the abdomen. If it’s more comfortable for you, eat little and often rather than having a big meal, and remember to keep hydrated.

Tips for the birth partner

It is important to support pregnant women both practically and emotionally throughout their pregnancy, and the role of a birth partner or companion can be extremely valuable in giving practical and emotional support during labour as well. Women in labour have a need for companionship and help and should be encouraged to have support by birth partners of their choice.

Perhaps food and drink will be the last thing on your mind but, depending on the type and length of the labour, having a good supply of energy and hydration may help with the labour process and with your partner’s recovery after the birth. As birthing partner, it may help to keep you going too so make sure you pack enough!

Quick, easy snacks and drinks are probably the way forward, rather than anything too heavy or difficult to eat.

  • Plan the foods and drinks you wish to take with you to the hospital in advance.
  • Buy the non-perishable foods and drinks on your list and pack them in your partner’s hospital bag.
  • Take straws or sports-top drinking bottles which are easy to drink out of.
  • You normally have a while at home before needing to go into hospital. If this is the case, try to make sure you both eat and drink something. This could be a few snacks or a meal; whatever you can both manage.
  • When in hospital, remember to keep offering your partner sips of drinks to keep her hydrated, and snacks if she can manage to eat anything.

Drink and snack ideas for labour

Early labour - snack and small meal ideas

Once your contractions start there can be a quite a long wait before you are ready to go to hospital, so you will need to make sure you keep your energy and hydration levels up. Below are some healthy snack and small meal ideas you could try:

  • Sandwiches, wraps or bagels - use wholegrain or wholemeal varieties, adding a source of protein such as tuna, chicken or cheese, and some salad.
  • Some fresh fruit or vegetables - good ideas for snacks include raw vegetable batons, pots of fresh fruit, or fruit that requires no preparation like apples, bananas, pears or satsumas.
  • Pots of salad - try to make sure it contains some starchy carbohydrates like pasta, potatoes or couscous, as this will help maintain your energy levels. Also, include a source of protein and some fruit or vegetables.
  • Fluids – as well as water, try liquid foods like soups, drinks like smoothies, or milky drinks that provide energy and nutrients.
  • Ginger – this can help if you are feeling nauseous. Try ginger flavoured teas or drinks.

During and after labour – drink and snack ideas

When the time comes to go to the hospital, it is also a good idea to pack some snacks in your bag. Although you probably will not feel like eating while you are in labour, they will come in handy after the birth, especially if this happens in the middle of the night when the hospital will not be providing food. They may help to keep your partner going too!

Here are a few snack suggestions to take with you:

  • nuts and/or seeds 
  • crackers, crispbreads or oatcakes
  • fruit loaf
  • teacakes or fruit scones
  • fresh fruit such as a banana, satsuma and/or pear
  • cereal bars or breakfast biscuits

As labour becomes more established, appetite can often disappear. However, it is important to stay hydrated if you can. Remember to pack some drinking straws too, so you can take sips of drinks easily during labour. Here are a few suggestions for drinks during labour:

  • water (still or sparkling)
  • isotonic sports drink
  • fruit juice or smoothie cartons

Nutrition in labour – what the science says

In certain cultures, food and drink are consumed during labour for nourishment and comfort. However, in some medical settings, particularly in the US, women have been recommended to fast during labour. This follows some quite old recommendations from the 1940s, where advice for fasting in labour was intended to protect women from an increased risk of pulmonary aspiration (breathing food back into lungs) during general anaesthetic (should emergency surgery be needed during delivery). However, since then, there has been far greater use of local anaesthetics. These advances, as well as reports showing that women find eating restrictions unpleasant, have led to more research in this area, and some clinicians and midwives argue that preventing food intake during labour can be detrimental.

A good quality study looked at healthy women with their first uncomplicated pregnancy. It compared whether there was any difference in outcomes, like length and type of labour or risk of vomiting, between woman eating a light, low-fat diet during labour (for example small amounts of bread, fruit and vegetables, yogurt and juice) and those women just drinking water and found no significant difference.

A review in 2013 looked at restrictions of food and fluid in labour compared with women who were able to eat and drink. The review found no benefits or harm of restricting foods and fluids in women at low risk of anaesthesia. Therefore, there is little evidence to support restrictions in women at low risk of complications.

The need for energy is increased during labour. During long labours, levels of ketones may increase (ketones are also produced during starvation and exercise), but it is argued that this is a normal response in labour, with little clinical significance. However, ketone levels, combined with starvation and fatigue, have been associated with longer labour and maternal psychological stress.

The World Health Organization recommends that because the needs of energy in labour can be great, healthcare providers should not interfere in women’s choice to eat/drink during labour without cause. The desire to eat may be more common in early labour. Most women seem to naturally reduce their intake as labour progresses and becomes more intense. According to the Royal College of Midwives guidelines, deciding whether to eat or drink should be guided by what the woman (at low risk of complications) feels she needs.

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