Are there natural methods of labor induction?

As you near the end of your pregnancy or even pass your due date, you might find yourself searching for a way to kick start labor. Often the last few weeks of pregnancy are filled with both excitement and impatience. As discomfort increases many take a deep dive into the internet desperate for tips and tricks that can “naturally” induce labor. 

If you are approaching or past your due date, discuss membrane sweeping with your provider. Membrane sweeping can be done during a cervical check in the office (it just involves your provider sweeping their gloved finger along the internal border of your cervix). While it can be uncomfortable, studies show it increases your likelihood of labor in the 48 hours following and decreases your risk of needing an induction.

Other than membrane sweeping, there is little evidence to support other “natural” methods of labor induction. The decision comes down to a risk benefit analysis, which will vary depending on your unique circumstances. 

Here are some commonly discussed “natural” induction methods. 

For most, little likelihood of harm

Acupuncture/Acupressure: According to acupuncture theory, certain points may induce labor contractions. While this claim has not been verified by independent well-designed research studies, certified acupuncturists will avoid these areas until a pregnancy is considered full term. At which point, full term mommas might seek the care of an acupuncturist to coax these contractions.

Sexual Intercourse: Although it might be the last thing on your mind towards the end of your pregnancy, there is some evidence to support sex (with a male partner or person with a penis) as a method to induce labor. However, it’s not necessarily the act of sexual penetration that does it. Semen contains prostaglandins (similar to those actually used to induce labor in the hospital) that can help thin and dilate the cervix, ripening it for delivery. 

Exercise: There are many known benefits of exercising throughout pregnancy, and data shows that those who exercise consistently (approx 150 min/week) have higher chances of a vaginal delivery. So can exercise or walking induce labor? Probably not. But it may help move your baby further down into your pelvis. Some light walking is a great way to distract yourself in early labor as well (assuming your ob provider doesn’t want you coming in right away). Make sure you don’t over do it though. If you consider labor a marathon, you won’t want to go running right before the big race!

Some risk of harm, only proceed if advised to do so by your Ob provider

Castor Oil: One of the most frequently shared “natural” induction methods, caster oil is nothing more than a laxative. It can cause gastrointestinal upset (diarrhea) that leads to uterine irritation or contractions, but it’s ability to induce labor is inconsistent at best. Starting labor with diarrhea can also lead to some pretty serious dehydration and exhaustion. Most of the time, castor oil is not a good idea.

Herbal Supplements and Foods: Herbal supplements such as evening primrose oil and red raspberry leaf tea are not regulated by the FDA in the same manner as medications and have not been widely researched in pregnancy. You should always discuss taking herbs and supplements with your Ob provider, prior to ingesting them.

Nipple Stimulation: When nipples are stimulated, as they are during breastfeeding, oxytocin is released and contractions can be induced. However, prolonged nipple stimulation in the end of a pregnancy can cause severe, intense contractions that put both the pregnant person and baby at risk. Since it’s impossible to control the level of contractions linked to nipple stimulation, it’s best to avoid this method unless you are being monitored by your Ob provider. 

As for “unnatural” ways of inducing labor, such as medications, we actually have far more comprehensive safety data with these methods. Learn more about the circumstances where induction is considered and the factors used to assess if it is a viable option here.