If there was a magic formula for effective natural ways to induce labor I would be famous! Many women try to get their labor started at home. There are actually a lot of natural ways to induce labor, but they don’t always work, and they aren’t totally harmless just because they are natural. Before discussing natural ways to induce labor, their effectiveness, and the pros and cons of each method, it is important to determine if inducing labor, naturally or otherwise, is a good idea!
Why induce labor?
That is an excellent question. Having a compelling personal answer is important! Healthy labor has many variations and it is usually perfectly normal, safe, and beneficial to allow labor to start in its own timing. I know there are many reasons to long to bring pregnancy to an end, but for the majority of mothers and babies waiting until at least 39 weeks gestation is super important. The important development that occurs for your baby with more time in the womb is just one of many reasons to avoid induction of any kind. Our bodies and babies are very intelligent! The readiness of mom’s body and baby, and the baby’s position in the womb change with time, and labor’s wisdom is deserving of our attention, consideration, and respect. Inducing labor when the body or the baby are not ready can create labor complications such as prolonged birth, an increased need for pitocin, and C-sections. I do not recommend induction, natural or otherwise, for convenience, manageable discomfort, accommodating work or travel schedules, or most other non-medical reasons.
Sometimes situations do call for intervention. There are many reasons that may lead you or your care providers to choose to induce labor.
- Health prevention for the baby.
- Health prevention for the mother.
- To decrease the risk of infection.
- To preserve birth options. For example, some hospitals may have policies about the maximum gestational age for a trial of labor after a previous Cesarean or for use of a low-risk, low-intervention birthing center, or have policies about how long you can await spontaneous labor vs medical induction after the breaking of your water.
- Your own truly exceptional circumstances.
Whatever the reasons, you are entitled to informed consent or informed refusal of recommended induction. The following questions may help you form a comprehensive understanding of your situation and help you as you decide what course to take for your family.
- What is the problem or potential problem? If a potential problem, how likely is it to occur? What are all of the known risk factors, and which factors apply to me? Do my birth plans and plans for managing pain increase or decrease the risk factors?
- How does the recommended induction work? How does it affect the physiology of mom, baby, or labor? How does it affect the experience, or what should I expect? Are there any additional requirements, such as continuous monitoring or a clear fluids diet?
- What are the benefits and risks of induction? What are the benefits and risks of each method of induction available to me? What is the likelihood that the induction method will be effective? Are there ways to minimize the risks or boost the effectiveness of the induction method?
- What are the alternatives and the benefits and risks of the alternatives? What is the likelihood that these alternatives will be effective?
Why consider natural ways to induce labor?
Each family has their own reasons for preferring natural ways to induce labor rather than a medical induction at the hospital. You may find that some of these reasons resonate with you and others are not important in light of your situation, hopes, or beliefs. Statistically speaking, medical induction is far more likely to get your labor going than any of these methods, so if none of these reasons are compelling, I encourage you to follow your care providers recommendation for a medical induction. If you are trying to induce your labor because your doctor or midwife is not willing to induce you, heed their wisdom! Prepare yourself for a natural onset of labor, and don’t induce if you don’t need too!
Inducing labor to address the underlying cause that labor is not starting
Many believe that when labor does not start on its own there is a reason. Correcting the reason labor will not start allows the body to go into labor on its own, promotes an easier birth, or prevents complications that may arise if labor is started more forcefully with pharmaceuticals. Pharmaceutical measures can stimulate labor without correcting the underlying cause, whereas many (but not all) of the natural alternatives rely on correcting various factors that may be preventing the natural start of labor. This is one reason why many of these measures are effective for some women, but have no impact on others. They are an approach that will work if they are indeed healing or corrective for the mother or baby, but if the factors they can influence were not causing labor to be delayed they will not have an impact. For this reason, many of these options will not work before 40-41 weeks gestation. Underlying causes that can be mediated with natural modalities include: the baby’s position, the mother or the baby’s physical, mental, emotional, or spiritual readiness for birth, high adrenalin levels, a misaligned pelvis, or an unfavorable birth environment. Some of these reasons are specifically addressed in Preparing Your Body for Birth.
Some people favor correction over pharmaceutical stimulation because stimulating labor when a factor is “off” – such as starting labor if the baby is in an unfavorable position – may lead to a longer, harder labor or increase the chance that a C-section will become necessary. Others believe that correcting the underlying cause may be an empowering process in and of itself, promoting the long-term holistic health for mom and baby.
These problems can be minimized by preparing yourself and your body for birth, and through the use of natural health care for birth preparation.
Inducing labor to preserve the body’s role in directing labor
Your body has complex communication systems that orchestrate the fine tuning of the labor process. As we perceive the love and safety of our environment we release varying amounts of the hormones that encourage and inhibit labor. As pressure from the contractions, the baby’s head, or the bag of water press on the cervix, nerve endings send signals to the brain communicating the particulars of these pressures back to the brain. In these ways and more your body works as a synergistic system, coordinating the decent of the baby with the opening of your pelvis and the rotation and molding of your baby’s head. Because pharmaceutical means of stimulating labor don’t originate in the brain, they are not integrated with this complex system of regulation, though their actions and this system work simultaneously hand-in-hand.
One theoretical impact of using an outside agent to start labor is that it could override the body’s natural feedback system at times when that system preserves the optimal function of labor. For example, it is conceivable that the body is not going into labor because the baby needs time to rotate before becoming engaged more deeply in the pelvis. Iintravenous pitocin would override this natural signal and cause contractions to begin. But strong contractions may cause the baby to be pushed further into the pelvis before rotation, which in turn inhibits the baby’s ability to rotate. This type of mal-presentation can make it too difficult for a baby to navigate through the pelvis and result in a C-section.
Inducing labor to avoid additional requirements or preserve the option of staying home
Medical induction requires that you are in the hospital, so laboring at home during early labor, and home births, are not possible with a medical induction. Continuous monitoring of the baby’s heart beat and an IV are usually required when using pharmaceutical methods of inducing labor. That is because pharmaceutical induction agents could possibly cause unnaturally long or hard contractions which could put too much stress on the baby and lead to fetal distress. In order to continuously monitor the baby’s heart rate, you will have to be admitted to the hospital, and may be required to stay in your room depending on the hospital’s monitoring technology. Because it is important that the monitoring is accurate continuously, you may also be asked to limit your movements so that the monitor does not slide across your belly. This absolutely does not mean that you need to be confined to bed, but you may find that larger rocking motions or certain positions that may be most comfortable for you interfere with the monitoring. You may also be restricted from bathing or taking a shower, again depending on the hospital’s technology. Other additional requirements could include having internal monitoring and a clear fluids diet.
Inducing labor to avoid potential risks of the pharmaceuticals
Different pharmaceuticals have different risks of unwanted side effects. You can learn about the possible risks and the chance of these risks occurring through careful conversation with your care provider about the particular agents recommended for you. Web sites that keep current on research and offer consumer reviews, such as the Cochrane Summaries, may also be useful. Some possibilities include: fetal distress, increased pain, increased requests for epidural anesthesia, increased use of internal monitoring, and increased rates of C-section.
Weighing the benefit to risk ratio
Sometimes the benefits of inducing labor are small but present. In other words, there is no immediate danger to the baby or mother, but there is good reason to suspect that an induction will become medically necessary in the next few days. When the reasons for induction are not critical, even the small risks presented by pharmaceutical agents are too great to justify their use. Some non-pharmaceutical means have less risks and therefore are a more valid option when families want to stimulate labor without acute medical reason.
Natural Ways to Induce Labor: The Methods
If you want to do everything you can to help your body go into labor on its own, short of inducing contractions, see my article on natural ways to prepare your body for birth. These methods are very effective at preventing or removing blocks that are inhibiting the start of labor. Some women, at full term, go into labor within hours of these corrections and preparation. While I do not recommend induction except for medically indicated reasons, it is great to use the techniques suggested in the natural preparation article. Unless your need to induce is urgent, those methods are the best place to start. Following are several natural ways to induce labor if you do desire to start contractions.
If you truly do mean to induce your labor, there are several non-pharmaceutical ways to stimulate contractions. Your body may respond immediately to some methods and not much at all to others, and your response will change overtime as your body’s own changes are taking place. The best way to know what to try is to go with whatever you feel drawn to. The methods that “make the most sense” to you, or feel like something you would like to try, may indeed be the ones that will make the most difference. This is your intuition speaking. Most of these methods can be used in combination with one another. There is little research on the efficacy, best use, or safety of these methods, however there is a long tradition of use associated with many of them. Use at your own risk. I will also offer my anecdotal knowledge.
The best way to utilize homeopathic remedies for stimulating labor is to work with an experienced homeopathic practitioner familiar with the many uses of homeopathics for labor situations. Common remedies used for labor include Cimicifuga, Caulophyllum, Pulsatilla, Kali phosphoricum. One protocol for getting labor going is Cimicifuga and Caulophyllum at a 15C or 30C potency. Take 2 pellets of Cimicifuga, allow to dissolve, followed by 2 pellets of Caulophyllum. Wait 15 minutes and then repeat for an hour. If you have not seen results in the first hour this protocol is unlikely to be helpful for you. I do not know of any risks. I have personally witnessed the effectiveness of homeopathic remedies in stimulating contractions. They work for some people.
Blue Cohosh and Black Cohosh, 5-10 drops taken under the tongue or in water every hour for up to 6-8 hours. The use of these herbs is controversial among midwives. Some traditional midwives use them regularly, while others believe that they can overstimulate the uterus and cause fetal distress or increase the risk of bleeding. I have personally witnessed irregular uterine irritability, but not effective labor with the use of these herbs.
To induce labor with castor oil, mix 2 ounces with orange juice or in a smoothie and drink all at once. If necessary you can repeat again in two hours. Castor oil “works” by causing intense intestinal cramping and severe diarrhea. You lose a lot of water through diarrhea and the uterus does not function well if you are dehydrated. You must be committed to keeping yourself very well hydrated if you use castor oil. Some people believe that there is also a risk of over stimulating the uterus and causing fetal distress. I do have a good number of clients who have used castor oil. About half don’t experience anything more than mildly loose stool, while others do experience the intense diarrhea. Many have gone into labor, but the women for whom it was successful had all had previous babies with the exception of one mom, having her first, whose water had broken. She successfully combined castor oil, rapid walking, and nipple stimulation to start labor.
Enema’s also work by stimulating the bowels in an attempt to cause uterine contractions. Try an enema only once, and only if you are already in early labor. I have seen these work to augment a slow start, creating a change in intensity and frequency of the contractions.
Nipple stimulation is done either by having your partner manually or orally stimulate your nipples by tugging, pulling, or rubbing your nipples, or with a breast pump or a nursing baby. Using an oil, powder, or standing under warm water can prevent your nipples from becoming irritated by the stimulation. Use nipple stimulation for 20 minutes, stopping during contractions, and then take a 20 minute break. Repeat for up to 2-3 hours. Alternatively you can stimulate the nipples until a contraction begins and then refrain for the duration of the contraction and the next 5 minutes. If another contraction has not begun on its own within 5 minutes stimulate your nipples again until a contraction is achieved. This can be done for as long as you want, but if you aren’t having contractions at least every 4-5 min apart on your own within 6 hours I doubt more time will be beneficial. I have seen nipple stimulation work well to start labor both by its self, and in combination with other techniques. It also works well as an augment to mild contractions. When it work,s the contractions will continue after the nipple stimulation is stopped. Often women find that they have contractions while they are stimulating their nipples but as soon as they stop, the contractions stop too. This is how nipple stimulation works at first. As you continue, you should discover that it has “bumped” your body into labor on its own. If you must continue the stimulation for more than a few hours it is not likely to be successful.
There are two cautions with nipple stimulation: it can irritate or bruise your breasts, and it is possible to overstimulate your uterus and cause fetal distress. If contractions are lasting more than 60 seconds without a 2-3 minute pause between contractions, discontinue use. Don’t wear your breasts or nipples out. You will need them in a few hours when the baby is born!
At full term, you may undergo an induction session of acupuncture to induce labor. Labor should begin within 24 hours if the acupuncture is going to work. If it does not, you may have one additional induction session. If labor does not begin within 24 hours of the second session, acupuncture is not likely to induce labor for you. Research has shown that 33% of women who receive acupuncture for induction at 41 weeks go into labor within 24 hours! My experience matches closely with this research.
Apply firm direct pressure to the labor stimulating pressure points. If you are in the right spot it should feel like you “hit a sensitive spot” and the pressure should be uncomfortable. You do not need to hold acupressure points, but rather just press them firmly once an hour. I personally have not seen acupressure work, but I do have a handful of clients who say that they felt immediate changes when their husband used acupressure at home.
Here is a great set of three acupressure for labor induction instructional videos that shows the points to use.
Bodywork modalities that move energy through the body can be used to facilitate the body’s spontaneous onset of labor. I only know this because I have met wise women who believe it’s possible, and because I have personally done bodywork for this purpose with my doula clients who have medical inductions scheduled. Several have gone into labor within 12 hours. My modalities are craniosacral, zero balancing, and reiki. If you know someone who does energetic bodywork you could ask them to do a session with you using the following principles.
- Ask the client (you!) to set the intention that she go into labor or that the session facilitate a spontaneous start to labor. Set your own intention, as a body worker, to be a facilitator of labor.
- Concentrate on releasing any stuck or held energy, allowing the body to apply it’s own wisdom about where it flows or encouraging a general downward flow or flow toward the pelvic region.
- Unwind tension anywhere it is found. Check for unwinding in the pelvis and along the spine.
- Spend time with the baby and explain to the baby why now is a good time to be born. Picture the cardinal movements of the birth process and the positioning of the baby and use your intuition to perceive if the baby will benefit from energetic direction regarding these postures or movements.
When to use these natural ways to induce labor
These methods should be reserved for when induction is considered medically necessary, yet it is reasonable to wait for a few hours or a day before medical intervention. In general, these methods are less likely to work than pharmaceutical methods, although if they are going to work for you they may work quickly. Most of these methods will either cause increased contractions within an hour or two, or not at all, although some require 24 hours or more. Sometimes these methods cause uterine irritability, meaning they cause the uterus to contract but not efficiently and not with enough strength to move labor into the next stage. These methods are all most effective when you are already in early labor or are experiencing a labor stall rather than as techniques for full induction of labor. Most of these methods are more effective for women who have had previous births.
I have had many clients, having their first baby, use these methods without “success” but when they go to the hospital for a medical induction their inductions have proceeded very easily with minimal intervention. Many did not require Pitocin at all, only a cervical ripening agent like Cervidil. I believe these modalities may be useful as a adjunct with medical induction.
Over stimulation of the uterus, causing long hard contractions with little or no break in between, is rare but possible using these methods. If labor is strong and intense, it is best to be in a setting where your care provider can monitor the baby’s heart rate.
It is often recommended that these techniques are used in combination with vigorous walking – walking as if you are trying to catch a train that may leave without you! When a contraction comes on, you can squat to open your pelvis and encourage the baby to descend more firmly against your cervix with each contraction.
Additional “Old Wives Tales”
I’m sure if you’ve consulted the plethora of mom-to-mom forums on line you have heard of other possibilities: pineapple, eggplant parmesan, spicy food, sex, bumpy car rides, sitting in the light of the full moon… These stories are told because they worked for someone!
Take heart – your baby will come. And medical induction is a perfectly valid option if it is in your best interest. I have been part of many wonderful births that were induced, naturally and medically, and my clients have been able to choose their pain coping methods. Many proceed through a medical induction without an epidural.
Birth often does unfold in ways that surprise us. If an unwanted but wise medical induction is in your future, I encourage you to embrace the potential for a beautiful birth! And if it is not and you are trying to herald labor here a few days early, I encourage you to wait for that beautiful birth! Leave these methods for a later day, should they become necessary.