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Giving birth is hard work.
It's good work – joyful, holy work even – but really, it's sweaty, grunty, focused, git-‘er-done kind of work.
And like any good work, it takes energy. Food is our fuel and – yes, while there is that time when you're about 8-9 centimetres dilated that you might possibly want to purge pretty much everything – it will serve you well to eat well early on in labor and to have a few easy items on hand in case labor goes long.
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Early Labor: Eat & Drink While You Can
When labor starts, usually you've got a few hours before you no longer feel like eating, so use the opportunity to eat deeply nourishing foods that will fuel you for several hours. If you crave a certain food, eat it, as that's your body's way of telling you what it needs.
Here are a few ideas for foods to nibble at will through the first stage of labor. (Please share any others you love in the comments!)
Groaning Cake – Groaning Cake was typically made for after the baby arrived, both to give the mother strength in her recovery and to serve to visitors who came to visit the mother “in confinement.” I've tweaked the recipe fairly considerably to pack in as much nourishment as possible, to provide lasting energy during labor, and to make it easily portable. See our recipe at the end of this article.
Liver Pâté – Pâté has gotten a bad rap through the years, but when it's properly prepared, it's smooth and silky and addictively delicious. It's also rich with healthy fats and proteins that will give long, lasting energy and replenish the body with needed vitamins and minerals. The fats allow the food to be supplied to the body slowly (as opposed to the quick spike of sugar followed by an energy crash) and it is notably rich in iron, which is especially important during childbirth both to fight fatigue and to replenish iron stores due to blood loss. Try our delicious pâté recipes – our favorite for this occasion is Beef Liver Pâté with Red Wine and Herbs.
Nuts and Dried Fruits – These are easy to transport and provide both sugars and proteins for needed energy. Stock up on the kinds you like or find a trail mix without any additives.
Hamentaschen – These Jewish cookies made for the celebratory spring holiday, Purim, are perfect labor food. They're bite-size, easily portable, scrumptious, and they're basically like a dried-fruit-and-citrus energy bar in cookie form. See our popular hamentaschen recipe here.
Easy Foods as Labor Progresses
As labor progresses, you likely won't be as hungry, but there may come times – especially if labor progresses slowly – when you will want sustenance of some sort. This may be to give you a quick pick-me-up, to help combat nausea, or to quench deep thirst. I find it easiest to have liquid food at this stage, so you'll notice bone broth and miso soup top my list.
Beef Stock – A well-gelled beef stock will ease digestive troubles and may even help ease nausea due to its gelatin content. It is one of the most nourishing foods to have on hand at any time for any occasion, childbirth being no exception. Due to its deeply nourishing nature, it will provide good energy, mental focus, and help prepare the body for post-partum healing.
If you need the stock to be portable, make portable soup. First, chill the stock for several hours after you have removed the bones. Remove the solid layer of fat on the top, then return the stock to a large saucepan, bring to a simmer, and reduce it to about one-tenth of its original volume. Pour the thick stock into a flexible container, sprinkle liberally with sea salt, and leave to harden. Once it has solidified, slice it into 1-inch cubes, and carry those along. (They can stay at room temperature, so no worries about just tossing them in your hospital bag.)
To prepare, place one cube in a mug of boiling water and stir until dissolved.
Miso Soup – Miso is a traditionally fermented soybean paste that is very high in protein. Its flavor is salty and savory and because it's often packed in tubes or resealable pouches, it's very easy to pack in a bag and just stir into a mug of very hot water to make a broth.
I typically avoid soy products completely, but childbirth is one of the exceptions I make expressly for the ease of making a quick, protein-rich broth that I can sip as I desire. It is absolutely essential to use certified organic, traditionally prepared miso, however, so take your time to find good miso. (This brand is the one I use.)
If you'd like more vitamins or a bit of texture in your broth, bring along snack-size sheets of sushi-grade seaweed to crumble in (such as these organic ones).
Honey Sticks – If you feel your energy lagging after several hours of labor and need a pick-me-up, snip open a honey stick and suck the honey out – you'll feel revived quickly. Choose raw honey if possible, as it will also provide immunostimulants, which are important as baby and mother are sharing their first moments together at the breast, but if you can't find raw, don't sweat it – the real point is the shot of sugar to get you going. (Can't find honey sticks at your local natural health store? Find them here.)
Ginger Tea – If you suffer from nausea during labor as I do, you may find ginger tea a welcome remedy. You may even want to bring a raw, peeled ginger root with you to gnaw on – it's an overwhelming taste and sensation, but it tends to soothe the stomach and (anecdotally) stimulate labor. (And if you want to discuss nausea cures, one friend recently told me she swears by a washcloth dipped in ice water placed on the back of the neck. She says it works every time.) You can make ginger tea by pouring boiling water over freshly cut ginger root or find ginger tea bags here (there are several organic brands available).
Concentrated Raspberry Leaf Tea Ice Cubes – Raspberry leaf tea is wonderful for uterine care throughout pregnancy, and during labor it is especially so. The flavor is very refreshing and it can stimulate a tired uterus by assisting in reviving strong, productive contractions.
To make the tea, find raspberry leaves in bulk (don't bother with the premade tea bags – we're going for something much stronger). (You can find organic loose-leaf raspberry leaves at your local natural food store, at Amazon, or at Mountain Rose Herbs.) Place 2 cups of dried leaves and 2 quarts of water in a saucepan, bring to a boil, and simmer gently for about 30 minutes or until it has reduced nearly by half. Strain out the leaves, stir in 1/2 cup raw honey, then pour into ice cube trays. Make the cubes quite small, as you will be eating these as ice chips.
Store the frozen ice chips in a resealable bag. If you labor at a hospital, place the bag in whatever freezer is set aside for patient use in the obstetrical ward and ask for them right when you want them.
Dark Chocolate – It may sound strange to have chocolate on a labor list, but if you find your energy flagging, a small piece or two of dark chocolate may be just the thing you're looking for. The small amount of sugar will give you an energy boost, the very small amounts of caffeine and theobromine serve as vasodilators, and the flavinoids will relax those same blood vessels and smooth muscles. These benefits will only come from dark chocolate, so the darker the better. (Theo is my absolute favorite! Swoon…)
Also, if chocolate is a comfort food for you, it may also help you to relax mentally. I always feel like my mind is reeling during labor and the moments when I actually relax and am able to focus become the most satisfying, productive, joyful parts of the birth, so anything that will help you relax mentally is a wonderful tool.
A Recipe: Groaning Cake
very loosely adapted from the novel The Birth House by Ami McKay
makes 1 bundt cake, 24 muffins, 2 9×5 loaves, or 4-5 dozen mini muffins
3 cups whole wheat or spelt flour, preferably sprouted
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 tablespoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
1 1/2 cups peeled, grated apple (about 1 very large apple)
1/2 cup very finely chopped walnuts or pecans (optional)
1 large carrot, finely grated (optional)
1/4 cup finely chopped dates or raisins (optional)
1 cup pumpkin puree (or any other squash) – see how to make pumpkin puree
3/4 cup coconut oil, melted and cooled but still liquid
zest from 2 large oranges
1/4 cup blackstrap molasses
1 teaspoon almond extract
1 cup sucanat OR honey
Preheat oven to 350° and grease a bundt pan, muffin tins, or 2 9×5 loaf pans.
Sift the dry ingredients together in a large bowl, then stir in the grated apple. Stir in the nuts, carrots, and dates if using.
In a separate bowl, lightly beat the eggs, then stir in the squash, coconut oil, orange zest, molasses, almond extract, and sucanat. Whisk until smooth.
Pour the wet ingredients into the dry ingredients and mix well. The batter should be quite stiff. If it's so stiff it's unable to mixed, however, stir in a bit of orange juice or milk. Scrape into your prepared pan and bake until a skewer inserted in the middle comes out clean.
Approximate Baking Times
- 15-18 minutes for mini-muffins
- 22-26 minutes for muffins
- 40-45 minutes for loaves
- 1 hour 10 minutes – 1 hour 20 minutes for a bundt cake