Time for ACOG and ASA to Change Their Guidelines! Eating and Drinking in Labor Should Not Be Restricted
“…The problem for anesthesiologists is that our practice guidelines on obstetric anesthesia are strongly worded, and state that women can not eat during labor. We can’t ethically design a large enough study to answer this question, so we will have to wait for expert opinion to change.” – Paloma Toledo, MD
Social media was all abuzz yesterday about information coming out of the American Society of Anesthesiologists (ASA) conference currently being held in San Diego, CA. Headlines everywhere screamed “Eating During Labor May Not Be So Bad, Study Suggests,” “Light Meal During Labor May Be Safe for Most Women,” and “Eating During Labor Is Actually Fine For Most Women.” People chortled over the good news and bumped virtual fists over the internet celebrating this information.
The ASA released a press release highlighting a poster being presented at the ASA conference by two Memorial University medical students, Christopher Harty and Erin Sprout. Memorial University is located in St. Johns, Newfoundland, Canada. When a professional conference is being held, several press releases are published every day to advise both professionals and the public about news and information related to the conference. This was one of many released yesterday.
The student researchers suggested in their poster presentation that it may be time for a policy change. Their research indicated that, according to the ASA database, there has only been one case of aspiration during labor and delivery in the period between 2005 and 2013. That aspiration situation occurred in a woman with several other obstetrical complications. “…aspiration today is almost nonexistent, especially in healthy patients,” the researchers stated. The research was extensive – examining 385 studies published since 1990. Much of the research available supported the findings in the poster presentation/study.
The current policy of the ASA on oral intake in labor is that laboring women should avoid solid food in labor. You can read the ASA’s most current guidelines, published in 2007: Practice Guidelines for Obstetric Anesthesia An Updated Report by the American Society of Anesthesiologists Task Force on Obstetric Anesthesia. The American College of Nurse Midwives recommends “that women at low risk for pulmonary aspiration be permitted self-determined intake according to guidelines established by the practice setting.” They also conclude “drinking and eating during labor can provide women with the energy they need and should not be routinely restricted.” American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists recommends no solid food for laboring women and refers to the ASA guidelines.
I connected with Paloma Toledo, MD, an obstetrical anesthesiologist who is attending the ASA conference in San Diego to ask her what her thoughts were on this new research. “General anesthesia is becoming increasingly rare, so fewer women are at risk for aspiration, since most women will have neuraxial anesthesia for unplanned cesarean deliveries. The question is, is eating in labor unsafe? They do allow a light meal in the UK, studies have shown that eating does not adversely affect labor outcomes, and in the CEMACE data, despite allowing women to eat in the UK, there have not been deaths related to aspiration. I think a lot of women want to move away from the medicalized childbirth and have a more natural experience. Women want to eat, and I believe the midwife community has been encouraging eating in labor. The problem for anesthesiologists is that our practice guidelines on obstetric anesthesia are strongly worded, and state that women can not eat during labor. We can’t ethically design a large enough study to answer this question, so we will have to wait for expert opinion to change.”
Lamaze International released an infographic in July, 2014 covering this very topic. “No Food, No Drink During Labor? No Way!” and I covered this in a Science & Sensibility post sharing more details. You can find all the useful infographics available for downloading, sharing and printing here. Additionally, the fourth Healthy Birth Practice speaks to avoiding routine interventions that are not medically necessary, and it has long been clear that restricting food and drink in labor is certainly an intervention that should not be imposed.
It is important for birth professionals to recognize what the American Society for Anesthesiologists’ press release is and what it is not. We must not overstate the information that they have shared. Please be aware that this is not a policy change.
Hopefully, this will be a call to action by the ASA to examine the contemporary research and determine that that their existing guidelines are outdated and do not serve laboring and birthing people well, nor reflect current research.
Childbirth educators and others can continue to share what the evidence says about the safety and benefit of oral nutrition during labor and encourage families to request best practice from their healthcare providers and if that is not possible, to consider changing to a provider who can support evidence based care.
American College of Nurse-Midwives, (2008). Providing Oral Nutrition to Women in Labor.Journal of Midwifery & Women’s Health, 53(3), 276-283.
American Society of Anesthesiologists Task Force on Obstetric Anesthesia. (2007). Practice guidelines for obstetric anesthesia: an updated report by the American Society of Anesthesiologists Task Force on Obstetric Anesthesia.Anesthesiology, 106(4), 843.
Committee on Obstetric Practice. (2009). ACOG Committee Opinion No. 441: Oral intake during labor. Obstetrics and gynecology, 114(3), 714.
Singata M, Tranmer J, Gyte GML. Restricting oral fluid and food intake during labour. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews 2013, Issue 8. Art. No.: CD003930. DOI: 10.1002/14651858.CD003930.pub3.