Having a Snack Between Contractions?

Pregnant women who drank protein shakes during labor reported better experiences

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD Beth Bolt, RPh

(RxWiki News) Typically, pregnant women are discouraged from eating while in labor because of possible risks. But that "rule" may be loosening some.

Research recently presented at a medical meeting revealed that women's stomachs emptied almost as quickly after eating a protein shake as after eating only ice chips and water.

The women who had the protein shake also did not experience any more nausea or vomiting. They were more satisfied with their labor experience as well.

The concern about eating during labor relates to the possibility of an emergency in which a woman must go under general anesthesia. General anesthesia relaxes the stomach muscles, and there is a danger of food entering the patient's lungs.

General anesthesia is not used as commonly as it once was, but "aspiration" remains a risk if a woman does receive it.

"Ask your OB/GYN about protein shakes during labor."

Senior author Manuel C. Vallejo, MD, chair of the Department of Anesthesiology at West Virginia University School of Medicine, and his team conducted this study.

The researchers split 150 women into two equal groups. All the women had received epidurals for pain relief.

The women in one group were provided with a 325 milliliter protein shake, which had 160 calories.

The shake had 30 grams of protein, 1 gram of sugar, eight amino acids and 24 vitamins and minerals. These women were also provided with water and ice chips.

The women in the other group were only provided with water and ice chips, not with a protein shake or any other food or drink.

Then the researchers assessed the women's satisfaction (on a scale of 1 to 100), their nausea and vomiting (hourly) and how quickly their stomachs emptied of the contents.

The stomachs of women who had the protein shake took an average 26 minutes to empty. The women who had only the ice chip and water had their stomach empty in 20 minutes on average.

These times were considered similar enough that there was no major difference between the two groups.

The researchers also did not find that one group of women had more nausea or threw up more than the other group.

The women who had the protein shake were more satisfied with what they ate/drank, than those who had only ice chips and water.

Although the risk of aspiration still exists if a patient goes under general anesthesia, the researchers noted in their abstract that "...improved general anesthetic techniques over the decades have decreased the incidence of aspiration in pregnancy."

The authors also noted that prohibiting women from eating can increase women's dehydration, hunger, nausea and anxiety, which may influence a woman's experience of labor and delivery.

"This study suggests that more liberal general guidelines regarding what a mother can eat or drink during labor should be considered," Dr. Vallejo said in a prepared statement. "Physicians should feel comfortable replacing ice chips or water with a high-protein drink supplement."

The authors concluded that the more liberal policy might be considered specifically for women with a low risk of complications and who do not have any conditions that might slow down their digestion.

However, some doctors still urge caution, such as Andre Hall, MD, an OBGYN at Birth and Women's Care, PA in Fayetteville, NC.

"There clearly is an 'old school' — 'new school' transition that may be occurring," Dr. Hall said after reviewing this study. "The take home point for me in this article is that protein shakes may be appropriate for those individuals at low risk for complications."

But determining who might be the best patients to be able to have a shake during labor is not necessarily straight-forward.

"This study was done by anesthesiologists. As an obstetrician, however, I am not sure I can reliably say who is low risk for complications. In addition, a low-risk laboring situation can quickly become a high-risk situation," Dr. Hall said.

"I believe additional studies are necessary before adopting this practice," he said. "Further, as this is not considered the current standard of care in most communities, it is not a practice I would recommend a this point."

This research was presented October 12 at the Anesthesiology 2013 annual meeting of the American Society of Anesthesiologists.

This study has not yet been peer-reviewed to appear in a medical journal, so its results should be interpreted with caution.

Information was unavailable regarding the study's funding or the authors' disclosures.

Review Date: 
October 14, 2013
Last Updated:
October 20, 2013