Ask Raven: Foods for Labor and Postpartum

Amanda asks:
1) What would be ideal for a laboring mom to have on hand for her birth in the way of liquids, snacks, etc. to keep up her energy and to help her recover?

2) What are the ideal foods and drinks to have immediately postpartum and in the week after the birth. is there anything we should avoid for a while?

Thanks Amanda for a couple of great questions!

During Labor:

The laboring mom needs lots of available energy, first and foremost. Many people interpret this to mean carbs — a bowl of oatmeal or a piece of toast. Many women also drink juice or eat popsicles during their labors. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with these ideas, but if we back up and look at the actual physiologic source of energy in a laboring mom, it becomes clear that more is needed.

A woman in labor does not burn fat for energy. Instead, the cells rely on a special type of stored sugar called glycogen to fuel the contracting uterus. Glycogen is stored in every muscle cell in the body, although the cells in the uterus are particularly primed to store it during late pregnancy. The body makes the glycogen from glucose, which in turn is obtained primarily from carbohydrate sources in the diet. Hence, fruit juice and toast during labor! These foods would be perfect except that the body’s ability to digest food slows dramatically during labor, and the uterus itself has a finite capacity to store glycogen. Muscle cells can not transfer glycogen between themselves, either. So where does the extra needed glycogen come from? The liver.

Our livers hold our greatest stores of glycogen. After a high carb meal, our livers can be up to 10% glycogen. Frequent exercise also sends a strong signal for the liver to store glycogen, in anticipation of a future need. As labor nears, a prudent approach is to 1) move until you are sweating each day; this triggers the liver to lay down even more glycogen and 2) eat an extra serving of unrefined carbohydrates — potatoes, sweet potatoes and whole grains are perfect for this, providing the raw material for the glycogen you body is making.

Assuming you have gone into labor well prepared in this way, you may need to eat little or nothing if your labor is quite short. But any labor longer than four hours (and aren’t almost all??) need to be supported by appropriate foods. Initially, any foods that appeal to the mother are fine. Meat, as a storage house of glycogen, is a good choice for early labor. Mid-way through labor, the stomach will be more sensitive. Egg drop soup in homemade stock with some whole grain pasta or rice, toast with nut butter, fruit with yogurt — these are all popular choices that provide some fat to help stabilize the blood sugar jump that comes from the carbs. Later, nothing will appeal — if labor is flagging, this is the perfect time for a labor shake.

Labor Shake Recipe
serves one pregnant mama

1 cup coconut juice (aka coconut water)
1 cup raw milk or yogurt
1/2 cup fruit, fresh or frozen
2 raw egg yolks, pastured or organic
1 spoonful raw honey
1 small piece of raw liver (optional, organic or 100% grass-fed only)
small handful of ice (optional)
Grind all ingredients in a strong blender. If you added the liver (highly recommended if pushing contractions are ineffective) pour through a strainer to remove any small bits of unblended meat. To serve as an Afterbirth Shake substitute a small piece of placenta for the liver. Serve with a straw.
This shake has been well tolerated by every laboring mother I have given it to, even women deep in the pushing stage.

If all else fails and a laboring woman simply cannot eat yet needs more energy, give spoonfuls of raw honey followed by a drink of water to rinse out the mouth.

This brings me to liquids. Despite the homebirther’s injunction to “Drink, drink, drink!” it is definitely possible to overdue water. Hyponatremia (a condition where salt and electrolytes are flushed out from consuming too much water) happens in labor more commonly than previously thought. Keeping total liquid consumption to under ten cups is probably a prudent idea, as is drinking liquids with additional mineral content. Coconut juice is an excellent labor drink, as is the following simple homemade electrolyte drink.

Laborade (after Dr. Royal Lee)
1 T blackstrap molasses
1T raw honey
1T raw apple cider vinegar
1/4 t sea salt

Add to one quart of water. Stir well and drink as desired. While the color is a little intense, the flavor is quite mild and thirst quenching. Lemon juice can be substituted for the vinegar if necessary, but use caution as citrus juice can be irritating during labor in larger quantities.

And yes, small amounts of plain water are fine if that’s what mama wants; just be sure to alternate with drinks that have salt and minerals.

Directly after the birth a placenta shake (see above) is simply great. No mom have ever minded the placenta in it either, although a couple of dads have turned a little green at the thought. Within an hour of the birth a meat stew or meat stirfry is just the thing to start to replenish the mama’s iron reserves. She will undoubtedly be quite tired and sending her to sleep with nothing but some fruit and cheese would be a mistake.

Settling in to nursing means eating more than during the pregnancy! Calorie intake needs to be quite high (at least 3500 calories a day) to sustain successful breastfeeding. It is crucial to snack and drink at every feeding (at least every hour if baby seems to be nursing constantly) as well as having three full meals a day. And no, oatmeal for breakfast is not a meal. All three main meals need to feature eggs, meat or fish for protein and B vitamins, fermented foods to help mama and baby’s digestion, and unrefined carbs for mama’s body to turn into milk — human breastmilk is quite high in carbohydrates. Snacks should feature dairy (hopefully raw, especially in the early days when baby’s system is so sensitive), nuts, moderate amounts of fruit, brewer’s yeast, coconut products and avocado. All these will help hasten healing in the mother’s body and help her make excellent breastmilk.

There are few foods to truly avoid, although of course there are cultural injunctions against many. One truism is that high sugar intake reduces pain tolerance. In the face of a bad tear or surgical birth, even overdoing fruit consumption can lead to more pain during healing than would otherwise be present. Be especially wary of taking “one bite to be polite” of cookies, pies etc that well meaning guests bring for the recovering mother. Seemingly benign, these foods trigger strong neurological reactions that can exacerbate tissue trauma, the baby blues, difficulty sleeping, and more.

7 responses to “Ask Raven: Foods for Labor and Postpartum

  1. Julie Alberlan

    Hi, Raven. These recommendations seem very solid, but I threw up through my whole labor. First breakfast, then drinks. What to do in that scenario? Of course, my nutrition at that time was not stellar (pre-WAPF), but is there a cause/solution for sickness during labor?

  2. In this case a homeopathic remedy is called for. I have seen great results giving Nux Vomica, although the exact remedy depends on the mother’s symptoms. A homeopathic remedy kit is a great thing to have on hand during labor.

  3. Arianna Mojica

    Raven, what remedies would you recommend specifically for a “labor” remedy kit?

  4. Arianna Mojica

    Thank you again for so self-lessly sharing your knowledge. I plan to print this guide and put it on my fridge door.

  5. i am having a really hard time eating 3500 calories. the baby is 12 days old and nursing well, but i get pretty tired and in the middle of the night i am so hungry but too deliriously sleepy to think of something to eat. and i want to avoid bread and crackers and too much fruit, but these seem to be the easiest for snacks with cheese or nut butters etc. any suggestions or examples of what 3500 looks like? thank you!

    • Hi Amanda,
      Not all bread and fruits are bad, esp if they are helping you eat more fat and protein calories. An apple with peanut butter or cheese and a glass of milk is a fine snack. You may actually need more carbs if your energy is super low (although some fatigue is totally normal, of course!). Assuming you are eating dairy, three glasses of milk, some cheese, 1/2 cup of nut butter, at least two eggs, meat at lunch and dinner and some whole grains or beans (both, even better!) will cover all your main bases. Put butter on everything. Add some salad, some fruit and the occasional starchy veggie (potato, squash, etc) and you should be all set.

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