But research suggests eating a light meal while in labor might not be dangerous. In fact, it may even be beneficial.
Michael Bautista, M.D., an associate professor of anesthesiology at Memorial University, St. John's, Newfoundland in Canada, became interested in this topic when he was asked why women are told to fast during labor.
"I realized I didn't have a good answer [to that question,]" he said. So Dr. Bautista assembled a team of researchers to study whether or not fasting during labor is truly necessary and present their findings at the American Society of Anesthesiologists's annual meeting back in 2015.
The reason women have long been told they should fast during labor was always the risk of aspiration, which is what happens when food or liquid is inhaled into the lungs.
But according to Dr. Bautista and his team, there's very little risk of aspiration in healthy, low-risk women. In fact, there was only one case of aspiration during labor between 2005 and 2013 in the United States—and the patient involved was high-risk, according to the research team.
"When a woman is in labor, it's like she's running a marathon and you need a lot of energy to run a marathon," Dr. Bautista says. "Having calories—glucose, sugar, something—to keep them going would be very beneficial."
Of course, it's still important to be careful about what you eat, since science is still divided on the reasons behind the rule.
"The risk of aspiration is much lower than it was four years ago but maybe it's much lower because we don't allow people to eat," says Cynthia Wong, M.D., professor of anesthesiology at Northwestern University's Feinberg School of Medicine. Still, Dr. Wong agrees that consuming something light is safe for low-risk women.
"I think that the research supports that women can drink clear liquids during labor without adverse consequences. I don't think there's a lot of evidence out there to suggest that women can actually eat a whole meal while in labor. It might be true but it has not been well-studied," she says.
Wong suggests sticking to clear items—think jello, popsicles, broth and clear juice. Dr. Bautista and his team recommended low-fat items like fruit, toast and light soups as good sources of fuel for women in labor.
With that being said, the experts agreed that some women should avoid eating while in labor.
"Certain factors increase a laboring patient's risk of aspiration which outweigh the risks of withholding nutrition," Erin Sprout, co-author of the study and a medical student at Memorial University, said in a news release from the American Society of Anesthesiologists. "These factors include eclampsia, pre-eclampsia, obesity and the use of opioids to manage labor pain, which delays stomach emptying."
Dr. Wong echoes this suggestion, adding that the rules surrounding fasting during labor have changed quite a bit. "I would say it was considered a no-no ten years ago. Over the last ten years there's been significant liberalization of the fasting policies during labor. I think if you ask most anesthesiologists they will tell you that women are often allowed to drink," she says.
Ultimately, the question of whether or not a patient can take solid foods during labor comes down to the particulars of that patient's health and pregnancy, according to Dr. Bautista. "Each patient should be looked at on a case-by-case basis," he says.