Eating & Drinking in Labour: Why, when, what

As a doula I’ve seen firsthand the difference that food and fluids can make to a woman’s labour.

It can affect her labour’s progress, her physical and mental stamina, and her need for interventions.

Here are my tips around eating and drinking in labour:

  1.  Why you need to do it
  2.  When & what to eat and drink
  3.  The power of electrolytes 
  4.  Doula tips 

1. WHY YOU NEED TO DO IT

Labour is just that, hard physical work. You wouldn’t do any other hard, physical work in life without fuelling and hydrating your body.

You need energy and water/fluids whilst you’re in labour. Otherwise you’re likely to hit the wall, run outta puff and need interventions to keep going.

Often you’re in labour for hours, and hours….. and hours…. If you’re anticipating having an active labour, then you’ll be moving, changing positions, swaying, slow dancing, fit-balling, squatting – all sorts.

Often you’re doing all of this throughout the night. Instead of sleeping.

Your body needs energy and fluids for optimal performance in labour. That includes your legs that are holding you up – and your uterus.

The uterus is one big and extremely powerful muscle. At the end of labour, it’s the uterus’ almighty power that expels your 3 – 4kg mass of baby. 🙌🏻

Your uterus – and the rest of your body – requires you to feed and hydrate it. So please do.

Women who are dehydrated and low in energy often experience a slowing or stalling of their labour. They then typically receive IV fluids and other interventions commonly follow.

⭐ Staying NOURISHED and HYDRATED can make the world of difference to your stamina and your labour’s progress ⭐

2. WHEN & WHAT TO EAT & DRINK

The best time to ensure you eat/snack really well is in pre-labour and/or early labour. Because at this time you’re likely to (still) be interested in food. 

But your needs don’t end here. It’s unlikely you’ll be thinking or even aware of your appetite once you’re in good, strong active labour so you’ll need reminding. 

But in the meantime whilst you’re early on, this is the time to fuel up on some complex carbs, some healthy fats and maybe some quality protein.

Don’t fret about the ratios too much. Just ensure it’s real food and not processed, simple, sugary carbs (they often come later). See below for examples.

If you can get a decent sized meal, or regular snacking throughout this early time it will really pay off.

It’s in the pre/early labour stages that you have the best opportunity to fuel up.

After this time it becomes a matter of topping up your blood glucose levels regularly through quick, easy snack foods when you’re in active labour.


⭐ PRE-LABOUR / EARLY LABOUR (ideas only)

  • Pasta/rice dishes
  • Chunky wholesome soups with mineral rich bone broth or miso, plus dense, complex carb toast (whatever variety you prefer)
  • Roast vegies (including root vegies for carbs) and roast meat
  • Vegie quiche
  • Eggs, mushrooms, bacon, baked beans, avo toast
  • Chunky, slow cooked casseroles/stews with bone broth
  • Vegie dahl/curry with rice, naan/chapati
  • Gourmet toasted sandwich
  • DRINKS: Water, herbal teas, coconut water, fresh fruit/vegie juice, smoothies, electrolyte drinks/icey poles
  • Aim for 250-300ml per hour.
  • Remember to empty your bladder every 1-2 hours too.



⭐⭐ ACTIVE LABOUR

It’s here you’re typically beyond taking in a whole meal as labour progresses.

It’s also likely that eating will be something that you’ll need to be reminded, or prompted to do.

At this stage, it’s more about quick, one handed, easy to chew/swallow/digest foods. Often high in carbs for continued energy.

  • Toast (if still at home) – with vegemite/avocado (my fav), nut butters, banana with honey
  • Cut up fruit – watermelon, strawberries, bananas, blueberries, grapes, rockmelon. Citrus fruits are best avoided as they tend to ‘repeat’ a little on some mums in labour
  • Fruit smoothies with added fats via nuts/nut spreads, seeds/tahini, coconut milk, full fat yoghurt
  • Bliss balls (hopefully made in late pregnancy) – energy dense with fats from nuts/seeds/coconut oil plus sugars from dried fruits (e.g dates, figs, apricots, bananas) and perhaps some protein powder mixed in
  • Dried fruit or nuts on their own
  • Muesli bars (although I’ve seen many mums give up on the effort required to chew these! One woman spat it out all over the floor just as another contraction was coming. It was a pretty funny moment we all giggled about afterwards). Lesson: Sometimes its better to cut them up into small pieces that’s not too much in her mouth at once
  • Sesame bars, sesame snaps
  • For the sugar hit; lollies to suck on, jelly snakes/beans, any personal favs
     

  • DRINKS – Water is ideally alternated with coconut water, electrolyte drinks (avoid the REALLY high sugar ones if you can), diluted fruit juice, chilled herbal teas (Peppermint is nice and refreshing, Raspberry Leaf or Birth Ready)
  • Cold drinks or those with ice are appreciated once you’re at the hot and sweaty point of labour ie. close to or past transition.
  • Aim for 250-300ml per hour. Remember to empty your bladder every 1-2 hours too.

Your mouth and lips often get very dry in labour, especially from all the outward breaths (or moans, or birth song) through the mouth.

So remember the lip balm and see my Doula Tips below.
 

⭐⭐⭐ SECOND STAGE / PUSHING STAGE

Women are typically beyond wanting to eat anything throughout this period. It’s mostly about staying hydrated and cool. 

So electrolyte ice cubes to suck or bite on are appreciated. As are any chilled/iced drinks mentioned in active labour.

A sip of water/electrolyte drink/diluted juice after every 1-2 contractions is often appreciated. The hardest work is ahead.


3. THE POWER OF ELECTROLYTES

Electrolytes are tiny particles that carry electrical charges. They serve many roles throughout the body and are required for optimal functioning. 

When you sweat, which you’re likely to do in labour or vomit (more about this soon) they play key roles in keeping water balanced both inside and outside of cells. This balance helps your muscles (e.g. uterus) functioning optimally.

Replenishing electrolytes via a sports drink or an electrolyte powder helps to replenish your mineral losses; but electrolytes also help make the most of your water. This is the key to proper hydration.

⭐ You can’t be adequately hydrated, without balanced electrolytes  ⭐

Sports drinks high in sodium, potassium, magnesium and calcium can actually help you retain your fluids. With an optimal fluid balance, you get optimal performance.

  • Sodium – maintains fluid balance

It’s easily lost through sweat and excessive loss can lead to muscle cramps. It’s required for maintaining fluid balance, nerve function, muscle contractions and acid-base balance.

  • Potassium – prevents cramping

Potassium works with sodium to help alleviate and prevent muscle cramps. Some is lost through sweating, not as much as sodium.

  • Calcium – regulates muscle contractions 

The most abundant mineral in the body, it serves many roles both in normal bodily functions, and athletic performance. It’s involved in all types of muscle functions and contractions. It’s also involved in the synthesis and breakdown of muscle and liver glycogen to be used as fuel stores.

  • Magnesium – relaxes muscles

Similar to how sodium and potassium function together, magnesium and calcium do the same. Calcium is essential for muscle contractions; magnesium aids in helping muscles relax. So the balance between the two is very important. 

Vomiting 

Over 80% of the women I’ve been with have vomited during labour.

I’ve got pretty good at knowing when it’s coming. I can also whip those ‘spew bags’ into action in a nanosecond.

It’s very common and for the most part, very normal. 

In a non-medicated labour, it’s often due to the mix of the birth hormones charging through your body. In a medicated labour it can be a result or side effect of the drugs/synthetic hormones. 

It may happen in early labour and can even help labour progress a little due to the mechanical actions the body goes through.

It may happen in active labour, when things are really getting going.

It may happen as you’re peaking around transition. As hormones are very strong here; its often the most intense part of labour. 

It may happen once. It may happen a few times only. Or it may happen on and off throughout your entire labour.

The most important message is to keeping drinking (and eating if you can). Even if you take in small amounts frequently, you’ll be able to absorb some of it.

Many women also say it’s better to “throw something up” instead of just gastric juices. I would have to agree.


 
4. DOULA TIPS:

Gather and/or make some birth snacks in late pregnancy – bliss balls store well in the freezer.

In early labour, start prepping (or have a support person prep) lots of snacks listed above, all ready to take to your birth place.

If you’re making an electrolyte based drink, you can freeze some in frozen tubes and/or ice cubes.

I’ve had quite a few couples pack a ‘snack esky’ complete with icepacks and ALL the goodness and variety for the labouring mum! 

Don’t worry about over-doing it, more is more. It will get eaten, plus you’ll be starving after the birth too.

Don’t forget to pack food for your partner/support people. They need their energy too.

Have your snack foods out and available to grab at any time. Have your partner feed you grapes, literally. 

Don’t expect the hospital/birth centre to feed you. You may be lucky to get some cold white toast and jam and/or a couple of biscuits. 

Aim for 250-300ml of fluid per hour. Always remember to empty your bladder every 1-2 hours also. As full bladders can get in the way of your baby descending. Setting an alarm on your partners phone can be helpful here as you often lose track on time in labour.

As you get deeper into your labour it becomes your support person’s job to prompt you to drink.

A straw helps as it does the work for you. You don’t have to lift your head or hold anything. Your support person can just gently place the end of the straw on your bottom lip after/in between contractions as a cue for you to take some.  

I created the Labourade powder to take with me to births as a doula.

It’s a pre-mixed electrolyte, magnesium, calcium, fruit and honey powder blend. 

Also known as “nature’s Gatorade”, coconut water contains 5 key electrolytes: sodium, potassium, calcium, magnesium, and phosphorus.

It has more potassium that 1 banana or 15 sport drinks! It has an osmolality identical to our own blood, meaning its super hydrating and helps our body actually absorb the water it’s taking on.

Labourade is a blend of fruit powders, electrolytes, minerals and salt. It’s to be mixed with water and sipped on during labour.

Can also be made into frozen icy poles/ice blocks. Good to suck or bite on during labour!

1 tub of Labourade makes between 3-7 litres, depending on preferred concentration/taste, e.g 1 or 2 scoops of Labourade powder in 500ml water.

The suggested use is 500ml every 2-3 hours.

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Spend some time in late pregnancy organising your labour feast stash.

Talk to your partner and/or birthing team about helping you stay nourished and hydrated throughout labour. As it will become their job after a while to support you here. Best wishes for your birth!

Kristin x

If you know of a mama-to-be that this may help please share.