Let Low-risk Moms Eat During Labor?

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Allowing low-risk pregnant women to follow less-restrictive diets during labor may not only make them happier but also shorten labor.



Practice Changer

A 23-year-old nulliparous woman at term with an uncomplicated pregnancy presents to labor and delivery. She reports regular contractions for the last several hours and is admitted in labor for an anticipated vaginal delivery. She has not had anything to eat or drink for the past three hours and says she’s hungry. What type of diet should you order for this patient? Should you place any restrictions in the order?

Since the first reports of Mendelson syndrome (aspiration during general anesthesia) in the early 1940s, many health care providers managing laboring women restrict their diets to clear liquids or less, with little evidence to support the decision.2 In a recent survey of Canadian hospitals, for example, 51% of laboring women who did not receive an epidural during the active phase of labor were placed on restricted diets of only clear fluids and/or ice chips; this number rose to 83% for women who did receive an epidural.3

Dietary restrictions continue to be enforced despite the fact that only about 5% of obstetric patients require general anesthesia.1 In a general-population study of 172,334 adults who underwent a total of 215,488 surgeries with general anesthesia, the risk for aspiration was 1:895 for emergency procedures and 1:3886 for elective procedures.4 Of the 66 patients who aspirated, 42 had no respiratory sequelae.

Similarly, Robinson et al noted that anesthesia-associated aspiration fatalities have been much lower in more recent studies than in historical ones—approximately 1 in 350,000 anesthesia events compared with 1 in 45,000 to 240,000—and are more commonly observed during intubation for emergency surgery.5

The current American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists guidance is to restrict oral intake to clear liquids during labor for low-risk patients, with further restriction for those at increased risk for aspiration.6 The meta-analysis described here looked at the risks and benefits of a less-restrictive diet during labor.


Not one case of aspiration

This meta-analysis of 10 RCTs, including 3,982 laboring women, analyzed the effect of food intake on labor and the risks and benefits associated with less-restrictive diets for low-risk women in labor.1 Women were included in the trials if they had singleton pregnancies with cephalic presentation at the time of delivery. The women had varying cervical dilation at the time of presentation. Seven of 10 studies involved women with a gestational age ≥ 37 weeks, two studies set the gestational age threshold at 36 weeks, and one study included women with a gestational age ≥ 30 weeks.

In the intervention groups, the authors studied varying degrees of diets and/or intakes, ranging from oral carbohydrate solutions to low-fat food to a completely unrestricted diet. One study accounted for 61% of the patients in this review and compared intake of low-fat foods to ice chips, water, or sips of water until delivery. The primary outcome of the meta-analysis was duration of labor.

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