Do You Need to Starve Before Surgery?

"What we do is women are allowed to have clear liquids during labor, no solid foods, and I would say that's probably the norm in the United States," said Dr. Linda Polley, president of the Society for Obstetric Anesthesia and Perinatology and director of obstetric anesthesia at the University of Michigan Health System in Ann Arbor.

Polley has read multiple studies that show women would feel better if they ate during labor. However, she said she rarely hears complaints about the fasting policy at her hospital.

"I think it is so much part of the culture and so much what patients expect when they come," Polley said.

The study was enough to convince some obstetricians of the merits of allowing food for low-risk women.

"If they want to eat and drink in labor, it doesn't appear to be a problem," said Dr. Soo Downe, director of the Research in Childbirth and Health Group (ReaCH) at the University of Central Lancashire in Preston, England.

"If it makes you feel better, it's probably worth it," she said. Downe wrote an editorial to accompany the study in the British Medical Journal. She said unless the mother is clearly at risk for a complication, doctors could use their judgment and allow a light meal.

Shennan agreed.

"If you are low risk and normal, it's OK to have a light diet or have isotonic fluids that have calories in labor," he said. "But certainly we would not want people to be eating large chunks -- we don't want you to be eating steak and chips."

Will All Doctors Change Fasting Rules?

When it comes to other people awaiting surgery, anesthesiologists come down hard and fast on the rules.

"It's standard practice and it's been fairly well validated that it does reduce the chances for pulmonary aspiration," Palmer said.

But across the board, anesthesiologists and obstetricians said the current study of food during labor was by far the largest they had seen.

"Well, I think it's an important study -- it's the largest study that we have to date," Polley said, "but we have to be careful in how we interpret the results."

Polley said she'd rather to see a study large enough to have more women go through the most critical of scenarios: eating, then needing general anesthesia for a Caesarean and ending up fine in the end. Otherwise, Polley would only change the rules for women who are in the best of circumstances in labor.

"It would have to be women who are not diabetic, who are not obese, whose babies are doing perfectly," Polley said.

But, given the demands of labor, Polley could see the motivation to loosen rules a bit.

"I guess the reason why we're interested in labor in the first place is that we call it labor for a reason, it is difficult, it's hard work, and that's what makes this population different than the typical patient waiting for a procedure," she said.

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