How to Induce Labor Naturally: Truths and Myths
By the end of month nine, most moms-to-be are more than ready for baby to make an appearance. You’re uncomfortable, you can’t sleep and you haven’t seen your feet in weeks—no wonder you’re counting down the days until you deliver. But, for a number of reasons, hurrying the process along with natural ways to induce labor isn’t always the best idea. If you’re wondering how to induce labor at home, read on. It’s not as easy or innocuous as you think.
Natural labor starts when a biochemical signal is sent from baby’s brain to the mother’s brain. This amazing process stimulates the mother to produce oxytocin, a hormone that causes the uterus to start contracting, leading to cervical changes—and voilà, labor begins. In contrast, when you induce labor, the uterus is stimulated (by you or, in the case of medicinal inducers, the doctor) to start contracting before nature kicks off the process on its own.
Women and their doctors may consider inducing labor for medical reasons if a continued pregnancy would put baby or mom at risk. These include having gestational diabetes or high blood pressure, or being two weeks past the due date. If your doctor thinks it’s best to induce labor, she’ll use in-hospital methods, such as an intravenous synthetic version of oxytocin (like Pitocin), which kicks off uterine contractions.
Most women, however, don’t need to be medically induced if they’re only just past the full-term mark—but that doesn’t mean they aren’t thinking about getting baby out ASAP. In fact, 22 percent of moms-to-be try to self-induce, according to one study. “Most women who are looking to naturally induce are at the end of their pregnancy and either want to avoid a hospital induction of labor or their body is feeling tired and they want to get started sooner to relieve the aches and pains that come with pregnancy,” says Elizabeth Langen, MD, an assistant professor of maternal and fetal medicine at the University of Michigan’s C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital in Ann Arbor.
The problem is that many of these natural ways to induce labor don’t work, and some methods can be dangerous for baby—even if blogs tells you otherwise. “Every culture has their own set of beliefs about what will bring on labor, but most of these aren’t backed up by science,” says Aldo Palmieri, MD, chair of obstetrics and gynecology at UCLA Medical Center in Santa Monica.
The truth is, there’s no safe, surefire way to induce labor naturally. Here’s what the experts say about what’s harmless to try (if you must), what might work and what you definitely should stay away from.
Eating spicy foods. There’s no research that shows chowing down on chili peppers or drowning your dinner in Sriracha sauce can help expedite baby’s arrival, but some people think it could help move labor along, since the bowel is next to the uterus. “The idea is that if you irritate the bowel by eating spicy food, it’ll irritate the uterus as well, since it leans against it,” Palmieri says. But again, studies haven’t shown hot, peppery foods to be an effective way of inducing labor, so you’ll likely just end up with heartburn and a fiery mouth. (You may have also heard of using other foods like pineapple to induce labor, but there’s nothing to back up that claim either.)
Going for a walk. One study found that 32 percent of women reported that exercise—usually walking—helped induce labor, but many doctors aren’t convinced. But staying active during pregnancy is great for baby’s health and yours, so unless you’ve been told to avoid exercise, go for that walk anyway!
Having sex. Sorry—research hasn’t been able to determine if a roll in the hay can speed up labor, but Palmieri says it’s easy to see why some women may think it helps, since semen contains prostaglandin, a natural chemical that can cause contractions. (A synthetic version of prostaglandin is actually used by doctors to soften or ripen the cervix when inducing labor.) However, having contractions doesn’t necessarily mean you’re in labor, Palmieri explains. If you’re at risk of preterm labor, your doctor may actually advise against sex.
Drinking castor oil. It’s true that consuming the vegetable oil can induce labor by aggravating the GI tract and, in turn, causing uterine contractions. In fact, one new study found that drinking castor oil ups the chance of going into labor within the following 24 hours. Still, you’re better off skipping it, unless you’re trying it under a doctor’s supervision (and not just because downing the oil is beyond unappetizing). “Drinking mineral oil or castor oil can cause stronger contractions than you’d have normally, and with each contraction, blood flow to the uterus slows down a bit so the baby doesn’t get as much oxygen,” Langen says. “If your contractions are too strong or too close together, the baby can lose oxygen, which can be dangerous.”
Stimulating your nipples. This is another “please don’t attempt this at home” method, Palmieri says. Stimulating the nipple in a similar way to a baby sucking on it can cause a release of oxytocin (that hormone that helps jump-start labor), but—just like with castor oil—it can lead to excessive and potentially unsafe contractions. Again, not something to try without a doctor monitoring your baby’s condition.
Getting acupuncture. Some moms-to-be claim that the traditional Chinese method of stimulating points on the body with tiny needles helps to induce labor, but most research shows that women who get acupuncture don’t go into labor any sooner than those who don’t use the needles. However, some studies do suggest that acupuncture can reduce the need for an epidural—so keep that in mind for when you finally go into labor!
Update December 2017