“You’re thirsty? Do you want some more ice chips?” Most women laboring in U.S. hospitals, no matter how thirsty or hungry they may be, must resign themselves to sucking and munching on ice. I munched my way through that rite of passage with my first baby. Enduring labor and birth has been compared to enduring and completing a marathon. Both feats are extremely physically taxing, but you would never expect a marathon participant to run without drinking or consuming any kind of fuel. Hospitals across the country expect laboring women to do just that, but is this deprivation really necessary?
When a patient must undergo general anesthesia for emergency surgery, there is a risk of stomach contents being inhaled into the lungs (also known as “aspiration”). Hospitals ask women to refrain from eating or drinking in order to reduce the risk of death from pulmonary aspiration. Even with these precautions in place, however, there is no guarantee that a woman’s stomach will be empty in the event that she needs general anesthesia. The risks of death from pulmonary aspiration are miniscule—1 in 1,250,000. Furthermore, deaths from pulmonary aspiration in these situations have more to do with anesthesiologists’ errors than whether a woman has had food or fluids recently. It is very uncommon for a laboring woman to require general anesthesia. Most of the problems arising in childbirth can be recognized and addressed without such extreme measures being taken.
What do hospitals offer as a “substitute” for food and drink? Intravenous fluids (IVs). Yes, IVs provide fluids, but quite often they provide too much, particularly when mother is given a “bolus” (large amount of fluid) before receiving an epidural (an attempt to prevent the blood pressure drop often resulting from epidural anesthesia). Fluid overload resulting from IV fluids can lead to other complications, among them:
* Fluid in mother’s and baby’s lungs.
* Diluted blood, leading to anemia and decreased oxygen supply to the uterus and fetus.
* Newborn jaundice, as excess fluid causes baby’s red blood cells to burst and release bilirubin (yellow product of red blood cell breakdown).
Aside from these issues, an IV will also hinder a laboring woman’s ability to move while in labor. Movement, particularly in early labor, is an effective way to cope with the pain of contractions. Lying strapped to a pole and a monitor in a bed will increase a laboring woman’s discomfort greatly. Additionally, when a laboring woman remains lying in a bed for an extended period of time, labor will not progress as effectively as when aided by movement and gravity.
I remember how strange it was to me when I came home from the hospital after my first baby was born and found that my legs and feet were swollen with fluid for a few days. I had heard plenty of pregnant women complain of swollen ankles and feet, but I had not experienced any swelling while pregnant. It surprised me to see swelling afterward. I also noticed swelling in my face and hands in the pictures taken of me just after my daughter’s birth. I can’t prove that it was the result of I.V. fluids, but I feel fairly confident they were to blame. Here's a picture of me in my swollen post-partum state...Lovely, eh?
When I gave birth to my second child, I chose to see a group of nurse-midwives who delivered at a small community hospital where they had, finally, convinced administrators to allow laboring women to drink. Instead of being given an I.V., I received a “hep-lock” which is simply an I.V. needle inserted in a vein but without the fluids. They like to have an “open vein” in case of an emergency. I spent less than three hours of my labor in the hospital because I had already progressed to about 6 centimeters upon arrival, and my labor progressed quickly afterward. I think I took a few sips of water when I felt thirsty, but not a lot. It was wonderful, however, to not be tied to the I.V. pole. I was also pleased to notice that I experienced no swelling afterward. Here's a much less frightening post-partum picture...
Not every laboring woman will be given the option to bypass IV fluids. Some hospitals have strict policies, and women who are induced, given narcotics or epidurals, or a c-section will have no choice but to submit to an I.V. Every intervention alters the birth process, however, and the more interventions, the more complicated the birth process becomes. I encourage women to avoid unnecessary interventions and trust the process of birth. Seek out care providers who honor and respect the birth process and will advocate for your right to experience birth as you wish, including eating and drinking if you choose. You and your baby are worth the effort.
For more info, see the "Evidence Basis for the Ten Steps of Mother Friendly Care."