If you’re in your last month of pregnancy, labor may be at the forefront of your thoughts. You are wondering when it will start, how long it will be, if you’ll be able to handle the pain. Plus you’re not feeling so comfortable anymore – your back hurts, your abdomen feels stretched beyond anything you’d ever imagined, and your baby is constantly kicking you in the ribs or kidneys. The possibility of inducing labor can be tempting.
While no one knows for sure what causes labor to start, experts believe a hormonal signal from the fetus lets the mother’s body know it’s time for the birth. They believe this signal will only come when the fetus is prepared for life outside the womb. While being able to start labor artificially is important when the health of the mother or baby is in jeopardy, induction is not always necessary and may have drawbacks.
The risks of induction include:
- respiratory problems for your baby
- neonatal infection
- use of pain medications for labor
- increased chance of cesarean birth
If, however, your healthcare provider has suggested induction, you may be able to get labor started on your own. If you are certain that you’re at term, and you don’t have any complications that would preclude non-medical induction, using the following natural methods may be worth a try. They will certainly limit the interventions that are common with a medical induction. Keep in mind, however, they are not always successful at starting labor.
Consider these natural means of labor induction:
- Nipple and/or breast stimulation is thought to stimulate uterine contractions through the release of oxytocin into a mother’s system. In their review of the literature, Kavanagh, Kelly and Thomas concluded that breast stimulation was an effective means of induction in a low-risk population. The studies they looked at, however, had a number of different ‘doses’: two studies reported one hour of stimulation per day for three days, and other studies suggested three hours per day of stimulation though they varied on how it should be done. Most of the research had women perform the stimulation on one breast at a time, though one study did explore using a breast pump. No uterine hyperstimulation was found in any of the studies, a non-significant reduction in cesarean rate was found in one study, and postpartum hemorrhage was reduced in the breast stimulation group compared to a no treatment group in two studies. More research is needed in high-risk populations. So, gentle breast stimulation can be a helpful method for most women with low-risk pregnancies. Though it may be a bit time-consuming, it’s free and can be done in the privacy of your own home.
- Acupuncture is a method of Traditional Chinese Medicine that has been used successfully over thousands of years to start labor, though this alternative therapy is rarely mentioned in mainstream health outlets. Though limited research studies have been undertaken on this modality, the ones that have show acupuncture can help women avoid additional induction methods. Acupuncture is thought to help a woman’s body prepare itself for labor, through the release of hormones. Needles are placed at strategic acupoints to ready mom and baby for labor. Every woman and every pregnancy are different, so there is no standard length of treatment. If a mom is already having pre labor signs, one acupuncture session may be enough to commence regular, steady contractions. For other moms, it may take several treatments before changes are noticed. Since there are no known side effects to acupuncture, it is a great choice for most moms.
- Acupressure is a related modality that requires firm massage pressure placed at strategic points along meridians on the mom’s body to stimulate the uterus or encourage the baby to move down (thus pressing on the cervix and causing the maternal release of oxytocin, the hormone necessary for uterine contractions). Acupressure can also be used to relieve stress and pain during labor – a multifaceted technique! While a trained acupressure practitioner can be a big help, you may be able to use this method yourself.
- Herbs, like medications, should be used with caution and only under the guidance of a trained herbalist or naturopath. Dosing instructions can differ, as can quality and potency. Possible drug and herb interactions should be explored before use. You want to be sure you’re using the herbs correctly to prevent mishaps. Most herbs simply prepare a woman’s body for labor, rather than actually starting the mechanical processes. Some of the most common herbs used include evening primrose oil, black cohosh, and red raspberry leaf.
- Foods to stimulate labor include pineapple, kiwi, mango and papaya (all of which contain contraction inducing enzymes) and garlic (which acts as a bowel stimulant that may trigger uterine contractions). Spicy foods – such as curries or foods prepared with hot peppers – are promoted in many cultures around the world. Not enough research supports their use as induction agents, but there’s also no harm from trying any of them.
- Castor oil is a vegetable oil that acts as a strong laxative. It contracts smooth muscles of the gastrointestinal tract, helping to ease constipation. Because of this, it may also irritate the uterine muscles and bring on contractions. Some sources trace its use back to ancient times, though modern research on its use as an induction agent is limited. In a study, Gilad and colleagues found that women given a single dose of castor oil entered active labor sooner than those receiving placebo, and concluded that it is an effective means of labor induction. Another study found that women who received castor oil had an increased likelihood of labor beginning within 24 hours than a control group of women receiving no treatment. While these studies are promising, the sample sizes were small and the methodology should be analyzed. Side effects of castor oil include nausea, vomiting and diarrhea – maybe not the best when you’re 9 months pregnant! If you are going to try this method, remember to stay hydrated. Dosing varies, so be sure to discuss the use with your doctor or midwife. Some mothers find that a single dose begins working within a couple of hours, while others need multiple doses to feel the effects. Almost all moms want to make the oil more palatable – so they use it in smoothies or mixed in with other food or drinks.
- Intercourse is sometimes suggested to start labor, but keep in mind it will only work if your body is already primed for labor to start. Orgasm releases pulses of oxytocin, which is the hormone that contracts the uterus. And semen is full of prostaglandins, a substance that softens the cervix. Two methods for the price of one! Add nipple stimulation as foreplay and you’ve got a fun way to spend the evening that might actually kick start your labor. More research is needed on this topic as there is not enough scientific study to determine whether or not sex is a means of starting labor – but it’s certainly a pleasurable activity to try! At the very least, you’ll be more relaxed afterward. If your water has broken, or if your doctor has suggested you refrain from sex due to a high-risk pregnancy, you should skip this method.
Keep in mind your due date is just an estimate. Pregnancies are typically 38 to 42 weeks from the date of your last menstrual period – but many factors can impact this calculation. If you’re sure that you are at term and if you want to speed things along, do your research first. Some of the best resources include Henci Goer’s book, The Thinking Woman’s Guide to a Better Birth as well as Childbirth Connections’ induction information page . Talk to your doctor or midwife, learn as much as you can about the pros and cons of induction, and make a truly informed decision. Most of all, be patient. Your baby and your body will let you know when birth should happen.