The Psychological Effects of NPO During Labor

The Royal College of Midwives has devoted an entire chapter to maintaining nutrition during labor. Their Midwifery Practice Guideline purports to give “evidence-based guidelines for midwifery-led care in labour,” and lists some strong statements regarding the practice of NPO during labor.iso 45003

The Guideline further discusses the importance of maintaining a woman’s psychological health during labor and delivery. Many experts point out that NPO is a restriction that exists only in hospitals. Perhaps the most important evidence provided by this document is that a woman’s body may be the best indicator of whether or not eating and drinking during labor is warranted. The desire to eat appears to be most common in early labor. Assuming that the human body functions independent of medical thought, a woman’s body may be indicating a desire for nutrition at the point during labor in which it may be most important; just as the hard work is beginning. The psychological interpretation of a laboring woman indicates that the withholding of food and liquids during labor may increase maternal apprehension because the practice is decidedly authoritarian. At a time when a woman should feel in control, control is taken from her. Other studies indicate that NPO during labor results in increased stress for the laboring woman and an increased perception of pain.

In his December 2001 speech at the Nobel Foundation’s Centennial Symposia in Stockholm, Harold Varmus, the President and Chief Executive Officer of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center mentioned that there is a “‘lag time’ between scientific discovery and the first application of discoveries to medical practice.” Additionally, Varmus indicates there is a “delay between medical progress and its application more generally to public welfare.” This lag between supported belief and practice is a “culturally patterned behavior [that] continues to be practiced long after the reasons for doing so have disappeared.” Despite marked improvements in obstetric care, anesthetic agents, and anesthesia administration, women are still prohibited from eating and drinking in labor.

In order to end the debate and effect decisive and cohesive practices regarding eating and drinking during labor, extensive studies regarding the safety of doing so must be conducted. However, as one expert points out “Death or significant morbidity from pulmonary aspiration is so rare that the use of randomised controlled trials to examine this outcome is impossible”. Still, productive studies can be conducted that precisely define how NPO affects the laboring woman physiologically and psychologically. Such studies can also address how NPO affects the fetus during and after delivery. Although whether withholding food and liquids from the laboring mother truly influences the risk of aspiration under general anesthesia may never be known, the other ways that this practice effects mother, child, and birth outcomes, can eventually be determined.

Rebecca J. Stigall is a full-time freelance writer, author, and editor with a background in psychology, education, and sales. She has written extensively in the areas of self-help, relationships, psychology, health, business, finance, real estate, fitness, academics, and much more! Rebecca is a highly sought after ghostwriter with clients worldwide, and offers her services through her website at

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