Why do pregnant women eat ice chips?

This was a question that directed someone to my blog.

There are two reasons that spring to mind, and the first is the stupid practice of not allowing women to eat or drink anything while in labor, on the extremely tiny chance that they will need an emergency C-section under general anesthesia, and the theoretical risk of the unconscious woman vomiting and then inhaling the vomit, which could cause harm or even kill her. I know of someone who died in this manner during a tonsillectomy, so it is possible, but is very, very rare, and only happens when they haven’t properly made sure the airway stays clear. Proper anesthesiology practice is to assume that people have something in their stomachs; and even when people fast, there is always a small amount of liquid or bile or something in the stomach which could theoretically be vomited up. If you know you’re going in for surgery, then restriction of foods makes sense. If you’re not, then you probably have more risk of having general anesthesia from a car wreck driving to the hospital than you’d have from an emergency C-section once you got there.

But if the question is in regards to pregnant women not in labor eating ice just because they want to, then I would suggest getting a blood test to check for anemia. A former coworker was told by her doctor that her craving of ice chips was actually a symptom of anemia (she wasn’t pregnant at the time). This woman was cold-natured anyway, and if she had had her way, the building would have been kept at 80 degrees at least, all the time. When she was at her worst with eating ice, she would sit at her desk, huddled under a blanket with a space heater by her feet, freezing away… while eating ice! I’d never heard of an ice craving indicating anemia before, but the doc indicated that it was fairly common.

So, if you’re pregnant and craving ice, you may be anemic. Anemia is fairly common in pregnancy — the woman’s blood volume increases quite a bit during the nine months, and if she doesn’t have enough iron, then the extra blood dilutes the iron she has, which manifests as anemia. One problem is, that vitamins or other pills containing iron may cause constipation, which tends to plague pregnant women anyway. Another problem is that iron pills may cause nausea. If you can get iron in a liquid form, or slow-release, or in pills containing a little bit at a time, these may help. Of course, you can always try to eat foods with a lot of iron in them, which I tend to prefer in theory; but if your iron is really low, you may need to “kick-start” with supplements.

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8 Responses

  1. I know that low iron was the cause in my case! Near the end of my first pregnancy and about halfway through the second I suddenly started having major ice cravings. Both times within a week of that starting the nurse at my ob’s office asked to check my iron and sure enough it was EXTREMELY low. The slow release iron capsules were the only supplement I could take, because even breakfast cereals (which are fortified with iron) made me vomit immediately after eating them let alone a full strength iron pill.

  2. i was told at a parenting class that a pregnant woman should not eat ice is that true i am 35 weeks pregnant and craving ice and eat it a lot but i know that they give you ice during labor the lady who told me said her doctor had told her but i dont know if it is true

  3. i am 20 weeks pregnant and i eat a bag of ice everyday, is it okay for the baby? i knw i’m anaemeic.

  4. I am writing a story set in the 1930s. Do you think they would have had ice chips for birthing women then?

    • Probably not. They may have had ice, but it’s unlikely a birthing woman would have asked for them or been given them.

      Had she been in the hospital, she probably would have been given drugs that would have rendered her unable to eat ice chips (or at least to do so safely — twilight sleep often made women basically lose their minds and act like animals, which is why they were often tied to their hospital beds throughout labor, a practice that continued even after twilight sleep fell out of disuse; if a woman had general anesthesia, she wouldn’t have been given anything by mouth). More likely, a typical birthing woman, either at home or at the hospital, would have had cool, wet cloths on her face, or possibly even to suck on; at home she would have been allowed to eat and drink as she wished.

      Just in general, access to ice would have depended on numerous factors; refrigeration was not necessarily required, since in the northern climates, ice may have been harvested from a lake in the winter, then stored in an ice-house for warmer months (read “Farmer Boy” by Laura Ingalls Wilder for such a description). However, warmer climates probably wouldn’t have been able to do that. Refrigeration was possible in the ’30s, but access to it would likely depend on how well off a woman was. I know there were ice-men that would sell blocks of ice to people, but I don’t know how common that was in the ’30s — probably more likely in cities than in very rural areas, and more common for rich people than for poor people.

      Rich women would be more likely to give birth in a hospital with a doctor than at home; and she would be more likely to get drugs or other interventions (including a C-section) than poor women. Poor women would almost certainly give birth at home, probably with a midwife rather than a doctor. Middle-class women could go any way, depending on what was available at the time.

      • Thank you. I may have to change that part of my story. This is helpful info. Any advice or links of what home birthing would have been like for a poor black woman? I read about doctors training black women as midwives, but they were very poorly trained and more often than not, a woman was unattended at a home birth. I read one account of where the mother recommended to her pregnant daughters to carry around a pair of scissors to cut the cord, “You never know when the baby’s gonna come and if anyone is around.” Whoa!

        • The quality of the training may have been in the eyes of the beholder. Considering that homebirth midwives in the ’20s had better outcomes than doctors in or out of the hospital — less maternal *and* infant mortality, as well as lower morbidity — and some doctors of the time KNEW that and HID it from the public, publicly calling midwives dirty and untrained and taking steps to criminalize them, while privately bemoaning the poor training of young doctors who may have seen few or even no births before they began attending pregnant women.

          I’ll consider your question, and try to come up with links to give you a better idea of what the birth would have been like; I know I’ve read many stories and even historical documents of births prior to 1950, but some of the stories I read nearly a decade ago, so probably don’t have a link. It can be tough to find the links, because the story that is generally told is what the powerful people of the time wanted told. Doctors were respected and had more powerful than midwives, so the story is that doctors were life-savers while midwives were dirty and untrained, even though most midwives were better trained in birth than the average doctor, either because they were trained in midwifery institutions or were “granny midwives” who had attended births since they themselves were girls, likely learning as they went, or learning from their own mothers or other older women about birth.

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