Eat and Drink: Quranic Advice for Birthing Mothers
EDIT: I originally wrote this post in 2010, the evidence has STILL not caught up to the practice. Yesterday the American Society of Anesthesiologists released a statement reiterating that, “most healthy women would benefit from a light meal during labor.” In the hopes that this time it sticks, I’m republishing this post!
Then labor pains impelled her to the trunk of a palm tree. She said, “Would that I had died before this and been completely forgotten.” Then he called to her from below, saying, “Do not grieve; your Lord has put a stream beneath you and shake the trunk of the palm toward you to let fresh ripe dates fall by you. Then eat and drink and be of good cheer: but if you see any man say, ‘I have dedicated a fast to the Benevolent One so I shall not talk to any human being today.'”
This is from the Qur’anic chapter entitled Maryam, and it is detailing the birth of ‘Isa (peace be upon him). Allah is directing her to eat and drink during labor. A woman’s first labor can be the caloric equivalent of swimming nine miles, why wouldn’t one eat or drink to maintain their stamina? Allah is Wise.
In the majority of today’s maternity wards however, women are not allowed to eat or drink during active labor. Ice chips are given out, but not much else. The logic behind this is to keep the stomach empty in case an emergency arises which may require the woman to undergo general anesthesia. Having any food in the stomach while undergoing general anesthesia can increase the risk of aspiration, a potentially life threatening situation.
In an out of hospital situation it is generally accepted that depriving a woman and her hardworking muscle, the uterus, of food and drink during labor can lead to a state of starvation, called ketosis, in the mother. This can prolong her labor, make her uterus ineffective, and possibly affect the reserves of her baby as well. In my practice, I give a list of beneficial and recommended food and drink to my clients during a prenatal visit in their last month. Broths, popsicles, honey, dates, yogurts, easy to digest foods are all encouraged. Labor is hard work and incredibly physical, we need to replenish our bodies as we labor.
And now it looks like modern obstetrics is concluding with the divine advice revealed to Maryam and with what midwives believe, that there is no justification for the restriction of fluids and food in labour for women at low risk of complication. A recent Cochrane review found no compelling reason to uphold the ban on food and drink in low risk women during labor. In a NYT article, summing up the study, one obstetrician illustrates the lack of logic behind the ban, “My own view of this has always been that you could say one shouldn’t eat or drink anything before getting into a car on the same basis, because you could be in an automobile accident and you might require general anesthesia,” said Dr. Marcie Richardson, an obstetrician and gynecologist at Harvard Vanguard Medical Associates in Boston, who was not connected to the new study.
While we don’t need modern science to prove the Qur’an, it is always harmonious when it does. “Do not grieve” Allah says to Maryam before He tells her to eat and drink. I imagine her comfort at finding a gurgling, cool spring beneath her; of refreshing her mouth dry from breathing with her contractions. And, of her hearing the reassuring thud of dates falling on the ground as she shakes the palm tree towards her. Soon a great prophet is to be born, and Allah is telling her, ‘eat, drink, and be of good cheer’. The world was forever changed. Gentle, encouraging words from the One who has designed perfectly how we birth our babies.