Natural Labor Induction Methods

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If you’re late in pregnancy, you might just want to get that baby OUT! In this post, we’ll discuss the risks and benefits of bringing labor on versus letting it start on its own, as well as talk about what the evidence says about some of the more popular methods of inducing labor at home.

Babies gestate for a certain length of time for a reason, so it often makes the most sense to let labor start on its own. If you or baby have a complication that might make it dangerous to wait to let labor starting on its own, your care provider may recommend a medical induction. This process includes a number of possible drugs and mechanical dilation methods to encourage your cervix to open and contractions to start.

If you’re heading for a medical induction, but you’d like to avoid it, there are several things you can try at home. Some of them have more evidence behind them than others, and regardless of which method you want to try, it’s probably a good idea to check in with your care provider first. Any type of natural or medical induction method is going to be most successful when your cervix is already soft—in other words, when your body is already moving toward labor on its own.

Sex: You’ve probably heard that having sex can kickstart labor. According to Rebecca Dekker, a nurse researcher who leads the website Evidence Based Birth, there are a few reasons why sex might work to induce labor: orgasms could stimulate uterine contractions, the prostaglandins in semen ejaculated during penis in vagina, unprotected intercourse could ripen the cervix, and there could be a natural increase in oxytocin following sexual activity.

There has only been one randomized trial that looked into whether having more sex brings labor on faster, but it didn’t show a difference between the two groups. In two other studies that asked people to report their sexual activity for the last month or so of pregnancy, having sex more often was associated with fewer pregnancies continuing past 41 weeks gestation and labor starting earlier.

Bottom line: the evidence for sex triggering labor is shaky at best, but if it’s pleasurable, you don’t have any contraindications during pregnancy that would make it unsafe, and you and your partner are both free of sexually transmitted infections, go ahead.

Diet changes: Spicy food, dates, pineapple—all of these things are purported to trigger labor, but they don’t all have the same benefits. Although gastrointestinal upset that comes from eating spicy food might help trigger contractions, eating spicy food has not been shown in any studies to bring labor on faster—and if you really experience indigestion, you’ll probably be uncomfortable.

Dates, on the other hand, have some evidence in their favor. Although it’s not clear whether or not people who eat dates toward the end of pregnancy have labors that begin sooner, studies have shown that eating dates might lead to increased cervical ripening and dilation. According to Dekker at Evidence Based Birth, pineapple contains a component called bromelian, which could contribute to cervical ripening, but there’s not any evidence that it actually has an impact on the start of labor.

Bottom line: If you want dates or pineapple or spicy food, go ahead. It might help.

Castor oil: Drinking castor oil will probably give you diarrhea, and according to the evidence, it might help you go into labor. In a randomized controlled trial published in 2018 in the journal Women and Birth, physician Drorith Hochner-Celnikier and colleagues determined that taking castor oil was most successful in bringing labor on within 48 hours in people who had had a baby before. It did not work as well in people pregnant with their first babies.

Bottom line: it might work for you, but beware of diarrhea and subsequent dehydration.

Nipple stimulation: using a breast pump or hand stimulating the nipples is an effective way of bringing on labor. It’s so effective at triggering a release of oxytocin that it’s been shown in multiple studies to induce labor in pregnant people who are already on their way to starting labor. For that reason, if you want to use nipple stimulation to bring on labor, you should absolutely talk to your doctor or midwife first.

Bottom line: this probably works but shouldn’t be done without sign-off from your care provider and probably not at all if you’re high risk.

Abby Olena
Dr. Abby Olena has a PhD in Biological Sciences from Vanderbilt University. She lives with her husband and children in North Carolina, where she writes about science and parenting, produces a conversational podcast, and teaches prenatal yoga.

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