After 38 long weeks of pregnancy many women are ready for that baby to leave the womb and join the world. While the doctor says they won’t induce labor until 41 weeks, moms can feel desperate to get things moving. Is there anything they can do to start labor themselves?
“Unfortunately no. If there were, nobody would go to 40 weeks," said Dr. Susan Lareau, assistant professor of obstetrics and gynecology at UPMC Magee-Womens Hospital. “There are lot of things people talk about and there are somethings that could make you have contractions. But there’s nothing safe or effective.”
People share old wives' tales about methods that allegedly spurred labor and many women might even try them. While the experts urge patience and communication with doctors about when it might be time for medical induction, they share the science behind the home solutions.
Research shows most of these tricks don’t work and are mostly harmless — but only for women having a normal, healthy pregnancy. Anyone with a high risk pregnancy should never try these options.
Castor oil is made from the castor bean or castor oil plant and was once used to treat constipation. Many women swear that taking it starts labor and some midwives even use a castor oil cocktail that includes champagne, said Dr. Christine Greves, an OB-GYN at Orlando Health Winnie Palmer Hospital for Women and Babies, in Orlando, Florida.
While castor oil can cause contractions, it does not lead to labor.
“Basically, castor oil gives you terrible diarrhea and, when people take castor oil, they get a lot of bowel cramping,” Lareau said.
Often this cramping feels like contractions, which is why many think castor oil leads to labor. But, adding diarrhea to late stage pregnancy sounds like a recipe for unhappiness. What’s more, doctors don’t recommend that pregnant women drink alcohol for several reasons, including the fact that it stops labor.
“Alcohol prevent contractions so it doesn't make sense to me how pairing alcohol with the castor oil and other components would help,” Greves said.
Often couples have sex to jump start labor and doctors once believed it could work. Semen has prostaglandins, hormone-like lipids found throughout the body, which doctors sometimes use in a synthetic form to spur labor. But, even the added prostaglandins can't make the woman's body ready for baby's arrival any earlier.
“Although in the past we have found that there's a possibility that sexual intercourse can help you with possible induction or cervical ripening, in more recent articles researchers did not find … that it helped,” Greves said.
Having sex won’t hurt mom or baby, in most cases. So, if couples want to enjoy intercourse before baby, she says they should, especially because women cannot have sex for at least six weeks following delivery to allow for healing.
“I don't see any harm to it,” Greves said.
Much like castor oil, spicy foods might contribute to stomach cramping or contractions, but do little to actually start labor.
“It'll give you heartburn, but unfortunately none of these things work,” Lareau said.
Greves agreed: "We have no evidence to support that."
A very common recommendation for women who want to start labor is to do some light exercise or take long walks.
When pregnant women exercise, their blood flow changes so more blood flows to the skeletal muscles and less to the uterine muscles, Greves explained. This could cause women to experience contractions, but they are short-lived.
“The simple answer is 'No, exercise will not induce labor,'” Greves said. “Those are just annoying contractions that may trick women into thinking that they may go into labor.”
Some research shows that 15 minutes of nipple stimulation, three times a day, starting at 38 weeks can spur labor, possibly by boosting the body’s production of oxytocin, aka the cuddle hormone. Doctors use synthetic oxytocin, called pitocin, to induce labor in the hospital. Much like other methods, however, nipple stimulation starts contractions, but doesn't lead to labor unless a woman's body is ready.
"Generally, I don’t recommend it," Lareau said. "The data is very unclear as to whether nipple stimulation is beneficial or not. Most importantly, it is not clear that it is a safe method of induction."
Greves said it might work better than other methods, but she recommends women talk to their doctors first.
“If you stimulate your nipples there is going to be a slightly higher chance of success,” she said. “Make sure your doctor thinks it is not harmful before attempting these maneuvers.”