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Overview

There are a lot of rumors about things you can do or food to eat to induce labor naturally. Some of these methods have science behind them. Others are old wives’ tales that you can probably skip. This article examines the evidence behind the methods thought to induce labor naturally. Methods included are exercise, baths, nipple stimulation, sex, acupuncture, acupressure, castor oil, evening primrose oil, red raspberry leaf, spicy foods, pineapple, basil, oregano, and dates.

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Your Due Date

We measure pregnancy in 40 weeks, and your due date is the end of week 40 or about 280 days from your last menstrual period. This calculation also assumes a 28-day cycle, with ovulation about day 14. Your due date is an estimate of when your baby will arrive, and it is not an exact science.

The Last Few Weeks

The last few weeks of pregnancy are critical to your baby’s development. You pass maternal antibodies to your baby—these will help fight infections in their first days and weeks of life. Your baby is gaining weight and strength. They are increasing iron stores and developing more coordinated sucking and swallowing abilities. The last few weeks are also when your little one’s lungs mature and prepare for that first breath of air. Your baby is also storing brown fat, which will help them maintain their body temperature in the early weeks following birth. A birth before all of these processes have a chance to run their course can make a difference in your baby’s health.

Your Body Leading Up to Labor

As your baby and your body get ready to go into labor, your placenta triggers an increase in prostaglandin that softens the cervix to prepare it for effacing and dilating. Your levels of estrogen rise, levels of progesterone decreases. These hormone changes make your uterus more sensitive to oxytocin, which is the hormone responsible for contractions. Nearing labor, your baby will move further down into the pelvis. While all of this is going on internally, you may notice that you have extra energy, which allows you to make any final preparations. You may have trouble sleeping, which could help prepare you for being awake at all hours with a new baby. It is this symphony of everything working together in sync that starts your labor.

This is how it works in a perfect world, right? Everything works like it is supposed to. Your body is ready, your baby is fully mature and ready to make their entrance into the world, and you naturally go into labor.

Before You Do Anything to Try and Induce Labor

There are three key things to do before you attempt any of the methods in this article to bring on labor naturally.

  1. Make sure your care provider is on board. It is especially a good idea to talk to your care provider if you have any preexisting conditions or any questions about naturally inducing labor. When in doubt, ask your doctor or midwife.
  2. If you have any treatments with any kind of therapist, like an acupuncturist, make sure they are qualified. More importantly, make sure that the person treating you is qualified and knowledgeable about pregnancy-specific treatments.
  3. Do not start any induction methods until you have reached your estimated due date and make sure that you are confident your due date is correct. Any form of induction is an induction, even if it is something you are doing at home, and you wouldn’t want to jump-start labor unless your body is ready and your baby is full term.

Keep in mind, the only surefire way to go into labor naturally is to wait it out and let your baby and your body tell you when it is time. Do not stress out over going over your due date. It may seem like an eternity right now. You have made it this far, you can wait a few more days or weeks to meet your little one.

Natural Ways to Induce Labor

There are a lot of claims of ways you can naturally induce labor. For each method, we will cover the mechanisms of how it works, the potential risks, and whether there is evidence to support it. For information on medical inductions check out this article.

Exercise

Anything from a long walk to stair climbing theoretically has the potential to get labor initiated. When you are upright and walking, gravity may help your baby descend farther into your birth canal, which can cause your cervix to dilate through simple pressure. Stairs require you to lift your legs higher, and this position may put more pressure on your cervix than just walking on a flat surface.

No studies are showing a direct correlation between any type of exercise and labor starting. One study found that regular exercise during pregnancy was linked to a shorter time in labor. Women who exercised in the water had about a 3 hour shorter labor than those who did not. 70.8% of women in the exercise group went into labor spontaneously, without an induction. This is compared to 60.9% in the group who did not exercise. Another study that looked at exercise during pregnancy found no differences in time in labor or rates of induction between the group who worked out and the group that didn’t.

There isn’t a downside or a risk of exercise or walking, provided you aren’t exercising to the point of exhaustion or injuring yourself. Listen to your body, and if it tells you to slow down or take it easy, listen to it. Even if exercising doesn’t help you go into labor, it’s a great stress reliever, and it will help keep your body strong for the marathon of birth ahead. Whether you are in week 13 or week 39, there are so many benefits to exercise during your pregnancy. As you near your due date getting outside for a walk could be an excellent tool to get out, get some fresh air and vitamin D, and take your mind off of being anxious about when your baby will arrive.

Bumpy Car Ride

You may have heard that taking a bumpy car ride can naturally induce labor. As long as you don’t get car sick, there is no downside. If you choose to give this a try, just remember to drive safely and always buckle up. I could not locate any evidence to support taking a bumpy car ride to go into labor. It is possible that a bumpy car ride could shake things up, but unlikely it will jump-start your labor.

Warm Baths

Could soaking in a warm bath help to get labor going? The mechanism behind taking a bath is that soaking in a tub may help you to relax. Soaking in a warm bath is also thought to help soften up your cervix and prepare your body for labor. I could not locate any research to support a warm bath to induce labor. The good news is that there is no downside, and there are many benefits to taking time for self-care and relaxing.

Taking a warm bath is safe when you are pregnant as long as you are not getting overheated. Since your body is submerged in water, you are not able to sweat to cool yourself down. If you feel like you are getting too hot, add some colder water or get out and cool off.

Nipple Stimulation

Did you know that nipple stimulation can help you go into labor? You can do this manually or with an electric breast pump. Stimulating your nipples prompts your pituitary gland to release oxytocin. This is the hormone responsible for contractions and may help bring on labor. Pitocin is a synthetic form of oxytocin commonly used in hospitals to induce labor.

There is a fair amount of evidence to back this up. In one study 200 women were broken up into two groups. One practiced breast massage beginning at 38 weeks. They were advised to do this for 15-20 minutes on each side, three times per day. They took bishops score measurements at 38 and 39 weeks. This is a rating of how your cervix is prepared for birth. In the group who did not stimulate their breasts, the bishop score was almost unchanged. In the group who did massage their breasts, the mean bishop score went from about 3 to 6. This group went into labor with fewer inductions and more vaginal deliveries. A Cochrane review that included six trials found that significantly more women went into labor with 72 hours with the intervention of nipple stimulation. 37.3% of the intervention group was in labor vs. 6.4% of the group with no nipple stimulation.

There is no downside to nipple stimulation, providing you aren’t stimulating your nipples to the point at which they are sore. The upside is that there is some evidence this can be beneficial in getting your labor started.

Sex

If you want to take nipple stimulation up a notch, sex may also help start labor. There are a few mechanisms at work here. Getting intimate and having an orgasm promotes the release of oxytocin. This is the hormone that causes contractions. Female orgasms have been shown to include uterine contractions. Lastly, semen is highly concentrated with prostaglandins. Synthetic prostaglandins are some of the medications used to induce labor in a hospital setting. Prostaglandins are hormones that cause your cervix to ripen (dilate and efface) and your uterine muscles to contract.

The evidence to support having sex to initiate labor is mixed. One study found no difference in the rate of spontaneous labor. This study also came up with the same conclusion. Another study  interviewed 120 women with signs of labor onset about recent sexual activity. They found gestational age at the time of delivery was significantly lower in intercourse group in comparison with the control group. What is statistically significant in this case amounts to a mean gestational age of five days younger in the group who had sex within the past week. The researchers concluded that sexual activity in the last week of pregnancy might be associated with the onset of labor.

You may need to modify positions to accommodate your belly. As long as you and your partner are comfortable and having fun, there is no downside. If you have any concerns or questions about having sex during pregnancy, please talk to your doctor or midwife.

Acupuncture

Acupuncture is a key component of traditional Chinese medicine. The practice involves inserting extremely thin needles through your skin at strategic points on your body. The objective of doing this is to balance the flow of energy, known as chi. According to traditional Chinese medicine, chi flows through pathways called meridians in your body. By inserting needles into specific points along these meridians, acupuncture practitioners believe that your energy flow will re-balance. Many Western practitioners view the acupuncture points as places to stimulate nerves, muscles, and connective tissue. Some believe that this stimulation boosts your body’s natural painkillers and increases blood flow. Acupuncture is often used for pain relief. As it relates to inducing labor, acupuncture may stimulate the release of oxytocin in your body.

One randomized, double-blind study gave acupuncture to one group, and sham acupuncture on another, where needles were blunt-tipped ad did not puncture the skin. The participants were women who were 41 weeks and six days. Within 24 hours, 12% of the participants who received acupuncture had gone into labor, and 14% went into labor in the control group. The points the acupuncture was performed on were specifically chosen as those thought to help with the onset of labor. A Cochrane review including 22 trials, reporting on 3456 women concluded that acupuncture showed some benefit in improving cervical maturity; however, more well‐designed trials are needed.

The downside of acupuncture is that you could be a little sore where needles were inserted. You want to make sure you have this done at a reputable place that is using sterile disposable needles. Please make sure the acupuncturist that is treating you is licensed and has knowledge and experience treating pregnant women.

Acupressure

Acupressure is very similar to acupuncture but without needles. Instead, the practitioner uses their hands to put pressure on various points throughout your body. Acupressure can release oxytocin, which you already know can stimulate labor. There was a study that showed acupressure did lead to cervical ripening, so it helped the cervix dilate and efface in preparation for labor. A Cochrane review did not find any evidence of benefit for acupressure to induce labor. If acupressure doesn’t get your labor started, there is some research that it can be effective for decreasing labor pain and shortening the length of delivery time.

There is no downside to acupressure, other than the time involved to learn how to apply pressure to specific points. My husband and I took an acupressure class before the birth of our son. I did find it helpful for some nausea during early labor but did not apply it otherwise during my labor.

Castor Oil

Castor oil is probably the most controversial method of naturally inducing labor. This stimulant laxative works by increasing the movement of the intestines. Since the intestines are smooth muscle near the uterus, which is also a smooth muscle, the intestinal cramping can spread from the bowels to the uterus and cause contractions.

One study found castor oil to be a safe non-pharmacological method for inducing labor. This was a study with women who were past their due date. 45% of the group given castor oil ended up having a medical induction, versus 90% of the control group. In one study, castor oil was not found to be helpful, but there were also no adverse effects.

There are some risks or downsides to using castor oil. Those include nausea, diarrhea, and dehydration. Even if you did go into labor, you don’t want to be going through contractions sick and stuck in the bathroom. This is an intervention you should consult your doctor or midwife about before trying.

Evening Primrose oil

Though EPO itself may not cause labor, it could and soften your cervix. You may take the oil orally or insert it vaginally. This is another intervention you want to run by your care provider. The mechanism behind evening primrose oil is the thought that linolenic acid in evening primrose oil may trigger a prostaglandin response.

One study on evening primrose oil taken orally from the 37th gestational week until birth found it did not shorten the length of time until birth or decrease the overall length of labor. It found that it may be associated with an increase in some complications, including the incidence of prolonged rupture of membranes, oxytocin augmentation, arrest of descent, and vacuum extraction. A triple-blind placebo-controlled study found that evening primrose oil does not have any impact on Bishop’s score and the duration of different stages of labor. Another study published in the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology found that using evening primrose oil did have a positive effect on the bishop score, compared to the placebo group.

Red Raspberry Leaf Tea

Drinking red raspberry leaf tea is supposed to tone the uterus and helps to organize irregular contractions into regular, productive patterns. According to Traditional Medicinals, one maker of red raspberry leaf tea is used for daily cycle support, menstrual cramps, and during pregnancy to help prepare the womb for childbirth. There is a footnote that these statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration.

The general thinking is that you start drinking a cup per day in your second or third trimester and gradually increase to two or three cups per day. If you don’t like tea, this is also available in capsules. In a double‐blind, randomized, placebo‐controlled trial, researchers looked for evidence that red raspberry leaf shortens labor and makes it easier. They found that red raspberry leaf capsules did not affect shortening the first stage of labor. The group who had the capsules had lower use of forceps and a slightly shorter second stage of labor. In total, this study included 192 participants. The good news is that there were no adverse effects noted.

There have been some animal studies on rats. One study concludes that the biological activity of red raspberry leaf varies depending on the herbal preparation used and pregnancy status. These results do not support the hypothesis that red raspberry leaf augments labor by a direct effect on uterine contractility. Another study found some concerns about the health of offspring. Both of these animal studies were small, but the results are not promising to show that this is an effective method to induce labor or make labor shorter or easier.

If this is an effective method for starting labor, you would want to be cautious about drinking it if you have any complications in which you do not wish to go into labor. As with any supplement, even something herbal and over-the-counter, you should run it by your doctor or midwife.

Spicy Foods

Spicy foods may cause your body to release prostaglandins throughout the digestive process. These can mildly irritate your intestines, and that could cause your uterus to contract. If you eat a lot of spicy food and have diarrhea, it is also thought that it could aid in inducing labor. If you like spicy food, you might as well enjoy a tasty meal, but there isn’t any research that shows this is effective. A downside of eating spicy food is that spicy foods can make heartburn flare-up, so eat it with caution.

Pineapple

Pineapples have been used as an anti-inflammatory, digestive aid, diuretic, and also to induce labor. They contain an enzyme called bromelain that may help to ripen the cervix since pineapple is also used as a digestive aid. Bromelain may stimulate the bowels to move, which could bring on contractions as well.  It is important to note that bromelain is found in fresh pineapples, especially the core. The canning process destroys most of the bromelain in pineapples. If you want to try eating pineapples to jump-start your labor, make sure that they are fresh pineapples. There isn’t a downside to eating pineapple, provided that you don’t eat so much that you make yourself sick. I could not locate any evidence to support eating pineapple to induce labor naturally.

Basil & Oregano

Some believe that basil and oregano contain properties that stimulate contractions and bring on labor. Eggplant parmesan contains both these herbs and is a popular dish long rumored to induce labor.  Basil and oregano are emmenagogues, which are herbs that improve the blood flow in the uterus and help with menstruation. Some cultures use basal and oregano tea as an emmenagogue to bring on a late period. Both herbs are considered safe to consume during pregnancy, but in high doses are thought to cause uterine contractions. I wasn’t able to find any research to back up this claim.

Date Fruit

Dates may not start your labor, but they may have a positive effect on the time you are in labor. The leading theory behind the mechanism of dates having these positive effects on labor is that dates have oxytocin like effect. Your oxytocin receptor concentration increases 200–300 times during pregnancy. Dates affect oxytocin receptors by making your uterine muscles respond better to oxytocin. This results in more effective uterine contractions, which could explain the shorter labors and the lower use of synthetic oxytocin in the groups who ate dates. There are several studies to support the consumption of dates, and you can read more here.

The general recommendation if you do want to eat dates towards the end of your pregnancy is to eat 6-7 dates per day from week 36 or 37 on. The downside of consuming dates is that they are high in sugar. This could be a concern if you have gestational diabetes.

Research on What Methods Were Most Effective

If you talk to different people, you will get a lot of different opinions on what worked for them to start labor.

One study asked mothers, “Did anything happen, or did you do anything that you think may have made your labor start when it did?” 32% reported physical activity (usually walking), 24% a clinician-mediated trigger, 19% a natural phenomenon, 14% some other physical trigger (including sexual activity), 12% reported ingesting something, 12% an emotional trigger, and 7% maternal illness. It could be that expecting mothers were going about their lives before going into labor. Some of the more specific responses were shopping, housework, working a lot, keeping busy, etc.

The only sure way to go into labor without medical intervention is to wait until your body and your baby are ready. Always talk to your doctor or midwife about trying anything to induce labor naturally.

The Placebo Effect

If there is anything you think might help your body go into labor, it might work just based on the placebo effect. If you want to drink a specific type of tea, eat a particular type of food, or go on a walk every day, you can. Anything that you think will be positive for going into labor could work based on the placebo effect. If there are no downsides to it, your care provider is on board with it, and you are comfortable and happy doing it, go for it.

 

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