Objective: to explore the effect of volitional food consumption by women during labour on labour and birth outcomes.
Design: a comparative design using concurrent controls.
Setting: four public hospitals in Sydney, Australia.
Participants: 217 English-speaking, nulliparous women with low-risk pregnancies. The sample was divided into four sub-groups identified post hoc from reported behaviour: (1) 82 women who chose to eat food during early labour only; (2) 10 who ate during established labour only; (3) 31 who ate during early and established labour and (4) 94 who chose to consume clear fluids only during early and established labour.
Interventions: voluntarily eating food during labour compared with voluntarily consuming clear fluids only.
Measurements: differences between the four eating groups were examined for labour progress using one-way analysis of variance (ANOVA). A hierarchical multiple regression tested the association between eating during labour and labour duration. The relationship between food intake and the incidence of medical interventions was tested using chi(2) tests.
Findings: eating during the early phase of the first stage of labour was associated with M=2.16 hrs longer labour (p<0.01). When women ate food during both their early and established phases of labour, M=3.5 hrs was added to their labour (p<0.01). The incidence of vomiting, medical interventions during labour or adverse birth outcomes were unaffected by food intake.
Conclusion: the findings suggest that women should be informed that labour may take longer when they eat food. However, eating does not seem to affect other labour or birth outcomes.
Implication for practice: the findings challenge the belief among many midwives that food intake is beneficial to labour progress. However, women should not be denied food for fear of vomiting or because it may make labour longer. Women with low-risk labours should be informed of the risk, although rare, of aspiration if general anaesthesia is required, and be allowed to respond to their natural desires for oral intake during labour.