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How to Induce Labor Naturally: Truths and Myths

Getting antsy for baby to arrive? Before reaching for the castor oil or hot peppers, learn what really induces labor, what doesn’t and what could be downright dangerous.
ByRachel Morris
Updated
August 31, 2021
Woman who is late into pregnancy talking on the phone in the kitchen.
Image: Kevin Murray / Getty Images

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. And it’s often not as easy or innocuous as you may think. So does sex induce labor? Should you go to town on a spicy peppers or have someone give you a foot massage? If you’re wondering how to induce labor at home, read on. We’re sharing the dos and dont’s.

Reasons for Inducing Labor

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, they’ll use in-hospital methods, such as an intravenous synthetic version of oxytocin (like Pitocin), which kicks off uterine contractions.

You don’t need to be medically induced if you’re only just past the full-term mark—but that doesn’t mean you 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.

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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 or other moms tell 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.

How to Induce Labor Naturally

As you approach the end of your pregnancy journey you’ll probably hear many suggestions about how to induce labor on your own. To reiterate: There really aren’t any surefire ways to induce labor naturally, and some approaches may be unsafe for you and baby. Still, if you’re itching to move things along, here’s what the experts say about what’s harmless to try (if you must), what might work and what methods you should absolutely avoid.

  • Eating spicy foods. If you’re wondering how you can induce labor at home, you might want to start in the kitchen. 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 eating pineapple to induce labor, but there’s nothing to back up that claim either.) Nevertheless, if you’ve got an intense craving and feel intent on figuring out how to induce labor, this is a fairly harmless way to try.
  • 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. Still, 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. You may hear that getting busy will do the trick to get your labor started. But are the rumors true? Does sex induce labor? Sorry—research hasn’t been able to definitively determine that a roll in the hay can speed up labor, but Palmieri says it’s easy to see why some 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 may 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 (the 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.
  • Consuming certain herbs. If you’ve been researching how to induce labor, you’ve likely come across any number of herbal supplements. Cohosh, evening primrose oil and red raspberry leaf tea are among the common suggestions you may find online. But you should avoid taking herbal supplements to induce labor, according to the Mayo Clinic.. They aren’t regulated by the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) and can have potentially dangerous side effects.
  • 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 do go into labor!
  • Trying acupressure. Over the course of your pregnancy, someone may have warned you about foot massages, claiming it could cause premature labor. But toward the end of your journey, you might start thinking both the massage and labor sound pretty good. And acupressure, a practice from traditional Chinese medicine which involves targeting certain pressure points to redirect energy and stimulate parts of the body, may be what you’re looking for. Many people believe that acupressure could stimulate muscles and kick-start labor, but research hasn’t backed this up. Still, you might as well enjoy that foot massage; studies have found that acupressure can help reduce the pain and length of labor.
  • Eating dates. Want to get things going and potentially induce labor naturally? Consider making dates a regular part of your diet in the last few weeks of pregnancy. A study found that eating them can increase effacement and dilation. What’s more, it may reduce the need for Pitocin.

So what triggers labor naturally? By now you probably know the answer, even if it bums you out to hear it. Unfortunately, nothing is guaranteed to reliably trigger labor naturally. We know that can be frustrating, but the truth is that baby’s in charge! Still, if you feel inclined, go ahead and ask about some of the safe ways to induce labor we’ve mentioned above to your doctor or midwife and see what they say. If you get the green light, there’s no harm in trying!

About the experts:

Elizabeth Langen, MD, is an assistant professor of maternal and fetal medicine at the University of Michigan’s C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital in Ann Arbor. She received her medical degree from Stanford University in California.

Aldo Palmieri, MD, is the chair of obstetrics and gynecology at UCLA Medical Center in Santa Monica. He earned his medica degree from The University of Rome La Sapienza.

Please note: The Bump and the materials and information it contains are not intended to, and do not constitute, medical or other health advice or diagnosis and should not be used as such. You should always consult with a qualified physician or health professional about your specific circumstances.

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