How to Induce Labor at Home

Our experts weigh in on natural ways to induce labor and reveal which home remedies really work when it comes to speeding things up.

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Photo: MilaSupinskaya/shutterstock.com

You patiently await your due date, eyeing it on your calendar with excitement or nervousness of both. But when the date comes and goes with nary a contraction, you might be tempted to take matters into your own hands and try to get things going yourself.

"I see a lot of people who are tired of being pregnant, want it to be over, and ask, 'What else can I do?'" says Jonathan Schaffir, M.D., an associate professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Ohio State University College of Medicine in Columbus, Ohio.

According to a 2001 study by Dr. Schaffir and his colleagues, more than half of pregnant people turn to non-pharmacological approaches to hasten labor as they approach or go past their due dates, but fewer than half tell their doctors or midwives what they're up to. That's troubling, doctors and midwives say, because although some folk methods may work, some come with unintended consequences.

Critical fetal development continues to take place even in the final weeks of gestation. So despite the nagging backaches, sleepless nights, and countless bathroom trips, parents-to-be are advised to wait until after 39 weeks pregnant before considering any induction methods (including pharmacological) unless an induction is medically indicated.

Even then, you should know the pros and cons of each method and discuss them with your healthcare provider. Here's a look at the natural ways to induce labor at home.

RELATED: Inducing Labor: Why it's Necessary and How it Works

Nipple Stimulation

Prolonged nipple stimulation prompts the pituitary gland to release contraction-inducing oxytocin, the same powerful hormone that initiates your milk let-down response and can lead to severe cramps when a newborn suckles. Its synthetic form, Pitocin, is the most common drug used to induce labor, and studies indicate that stimulating it naturally can be effective as well.

A Cochrane Database review that included 719 people who were 37 weeks pregnant or later found that nearly 40% of those who stimulated their nipples for one to three hours daily had their babies within three days, while only 6% of the control group gave birth in that time frame.

But aside from the impracticalities (who has time to do this for hours on end?), this method comes with serious risks: "We know it works," says Suzy Myers, C.P.M., a certified professional midwife, co-founder of Seattle Home Maternity, and former chairwoman of the department of midwifery at Bastyr University in Kenmore, Washington. "But you have to be very careful that you are not overstimulating the uterus and making the contractions too strong or too close together. You also have to make sure the baby is tolerating it well by having your health care provider monitor his or her heartbeat."

Sex

Although research results are mixed, anecdotes abound about late babies making an entrance soon after a love-making session. For its part, penis-in-vagina sex can introduce semen, which contains cervix-softening fats called prostaglandins (also used in medical induction), to the vagina. Additionally, orgasm can lead to strong uterine contractions, so the potential labor-inducing benefits aren't limited to penetrative or partnered sex.

One study of 200 healthy pregnant people found that those who had sex after 36 weeks of pregnancy were significantly less likely to go past their due date or require labor induction. But another study published in the British Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology found no difference between sexually active and abstinent pregnant people when it came to length of gestation.

The verdict? "If a woman has a low risk for premature labor and no placenta previa, it won't hurt to try," says Dr. Schaffir.

Castor Oil and Spicy Food

Midwives have long recommended inducing labor naturally by drinking castor oil. The idea is that the botanical laxative can stimulate the smooth muscle of the bowels, promote the release of prostaglandin, and nudge the nearby uterus into action.

Research results are varied, but one small clinical trial showed that full-term pregnant people who were given castor oil were more likely to go into labor within 24 hours. But the side effects—including nausea, explosive diarrhea, and dehydration—can be grueling, Myers says.

A safer bet for those who are beyond 39 weeks of pregnancy? Load up on spicy food, which could have similar results without the nasty side effects (but be prepared for heartburn and puffy ankles because spicy food taxes your digestive system).

Herbs and Acupuncture

Midwives also commonly suggest evening primrose oil and blue cohosh as natural ways to support or induce labor. Though each herb has a plausible mechanism for working, they also come with potential downsides.

Evening primrose oil, which is prescribed in capsule form or rubbed directly on the cervix, is believed to help soften the cervix and ready it for labor. However, the few published studies that have looked at its effectiveness failed to find that its use caused labor to begin any earlier. But one study suggests it may actually prolong the active phase of labor and boost the incidence of certain labor complications (such as arrested descent of the fetus in the birth canal).

Both blue (Caulophyllum) and black (Cimicifuga) cohosh have been used to treat menstrual ailments for centuries. However, some studies have suggested that blue cohosh can have some dangerous side effects in pregnancy, so it should be avoided.

Meanwhile, raspberry leaf tea is often recommended in the weeks leading up to the due date to tone the uterus but research hasn't proven that it has any effect on labor. And numerous studies have suggested that using acupuncture to induce labor naturally is promising, but other studies link it to prolonged pregnancy.

Exercise and Patience

Forty-three percent of the respondents in Dr. Schaffir's study said they exercised more in the final days of pregnancy in hopes of bringing on labor. But although good for you, exercise hasn't proved to speed up labor, Dr. Schaffir says.

His best advice to past-due pregnant folks longing for that first contraction? Skip the home remedies to induce labor, eat right, rest, and enjoy those last few days of pregnancy as much as possible. "The safest and healthiest labor is one that starts spontaneously," Dr. Schaffir says.

RELATED: 5 Simple Pregnancy Exercises for Every Trimester

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