When it comes to delivering your baby, in the words of Tom Petty, sometimes the waiting is the hardest part.
If you’re near or past your due date, you may be thinking of ways to get the ball rolling naturally to mitigate your discomfort and hold your baby in your arms instead of your womb.
From walking to eating dates, nipple stimulation to castor oil, sexual activity to acupuncture, the methods women try to induce labor at home vary widely. While there are more than 18,000 references to the induction of labor in medical literature since 1844, there isn’t a firm consensus on the methods or tools for evaluating its success [*].
That said, here are some of the common ways women try to induce labor at home, and whether there is any reason to believe they are safe or effective. Natural induction methods should be done with caution, only at term, and for low-risk pregnancies. Before trying any of these options, be sure to consult with your midwife or care team.
How to Naturally Induce Labor
Thoughtful exercise is recommended during pregnancy, whether it helps induce labor or not, for its health benefits to mother and baby.
A 2021 study had low-risk pregnant women walking for 40 minutes 4 times a week from week 34 until delivery. That study found that walking improved some of the significant outcomes of labor and delivery such as cervix preparation and Bishop Score (a predictor of how ready your body is for labor), increased the cases of spontaneous labor, and decreased the cases of induced labor and c-section without causing any undesirable effects on the newborn’s Apgar score [*].
2. Nipple Stimulation
There are a number of studies that examine nipple stimulation to induce labor because it stimulates the release of oxytocin — the hormone that causes the uterus to contract and the breast to release milk. Synthetic oxytocin is commonly used in a clinical setting to induce labor [*].
Some studies show breast stimulation to be beneficial in reducing elective induction and reducing postpartum hemorrhage rates [*]. In the week before their due date, 50% of Japanese women practice nipple stimulation, according to one study [*].
However, the danger here is that the oxytocin release could cause painfully long and strong contractions that might lower fetal heart rate without bringing about the onset of labor.
3. Herbal Supplements
From black cohosh to evening primrose oil or raspberry leaf tea, there are a number of herbal supplements for labor induction that are largely unregulated and not known to be safe for pregnancy.
Black cohosh preparations have been shown to induce chromosomal damage and may pose a safety concern to all who consume it [*]. It’s best to avoid any and all unregulated herbal supplements when you’re pregnant.
4. Castor Oil
Castor oil is a thick, odorless oil made from the beans of the castor plant. Castor oil is thought by some to have an effect on inducing labor because a chemical in it stimulates prostaglandin [*]. But castor oil is a laxative that, along with contractions, can cause stomach upset and diarrhea — which is the last thing you’d want at 41 weeks pregnant or during labor [*].
In another study of 233 women ingesting castor oil to induce labor, all of them reported feeling nauseous, and there was no difference in their outcomes [*].
Dates, dates, the magical fruit…eat 6 a day to give baby the boot? A small Iranian study compared labor among 69 women who consumed 6 date fruits per day for 4 weeks prior to their estimated due date with 45 women who consumed none. The researchers concluded that eating date fruit in the last 4 weeks before labor significantly reduced the need for induction and augmentation of labor, and produced a more favorable, but non-significant, delivery outcome [*].
Another study of 210 women also found a favorable outcome as to Bishop scores and cervical dilation among the women who ate 70-75 grams of dates (about 4) per day from week 37 until onset of labor [*].
That said, if you’ve never eaten 4-6 dates a day before, you may want to ease into it. On the positive side, dates are high in polyphenols, minerals, iron, and fiber, but on the negative, they contain sulfites that can lead to allergic reactions and are high in fructose and calories (2 dates contain 100 calories).
In moderation, dates may be a good source of nourishment and a natural way to stimulate a bowel movement, but before consuming 4-6 a day, talk to your care team.
The role of sex to induce labor at home is uncertain, but it covers a lot of bases. On one hand, semen contains a high concentration of prostaglandins, which has been used for cervical ripening and to induce labor since the 1960s [*]. On top of that there’s the physical stimulation of the lower uterine segment, the natural release of oxytocin as a result of orgasm, and probably nipple stimulation as well [*].
If you can tolerate sex in the late stages of pregnancy and your OBGYN thinks it’s safe, it’s worth giving it a try, but don’t expect miracles: Some studies claim sex doesn’t induce labor [*]. And definitely don’t do it after your water has broken.
7. Acupuncture & Acupressure
Acupuncture or acupressure have been studied in the context of inducing labor but there is no clear indication either works to induce labor at home [*]. Acupuncture showed some positive effects on cervical ripening, but further studies are needed [*].
Unproven Methods of Inducing Labor Naturally
Curb walking is trending on the internet but there is no evidence to support that it works to induce labor. The theory is, walking for a short time with one foot on the curb and the other on the pavement will create a rocking motion that encourages the fetus to move further down into the birth canal and thus trigger labor. This movement is something baby will do naturally in the weeks before delivery so it’s hard to give merit to claims that this works.
Ingesting Spicy Food
Ingesting spicy food may be more likely to bring on heartburn (or intestinal spasms) than induce labor at home. There is no evidence to support this and plenty of reasons to avoid it.
There is no evidence to support the theory that a hot bath will induce labor. It's okay to take a warm bath while you're pregnant but keep the temperature below 98F. Water that is too hot can reduce the blood flow to your baby and cause distress.
Stimulating the bowel may make for stronger contractions but it doesn’t necessarily equate to inducing labor. Further, the risk of fecal material reaching the vagina presents an infection risk.
The British National Institutes for Health Care Excellence (NICE) note in their guidance paper that there is no evidence that herbal supplements, acupuncture, homeopathy, castor oil, hot baths, enemas, or sexual intercourse can induce labor [*].
Is It Safe to Naturally Induce Labor?
The rate of labor induction is steadily increasing. In industrialized countries, almost 25% of pregnant women have their labor induced [*]. And yet, only about 5% of women remain pregnant at 41 or 42 weeks, according to the CDC [*].
You might think that induced labor is rising due to pregnancy complications brought on by the rise of diabetes, obesity, and other health crises, but the overall rate of induced labor is rising faster than the rate of pregnancy complications that would lead to a medically indicated induction [*].
In a clinical setting, induction of labor (IOL) is indicated when the outcomes for the fetus, the mother, or both are better than waiting for delivery to commence on its own (aka expectant management), and the mother is considered able to deliver vaginally.
Induction of labor in a clinical setting does carry risks: there may be an increase in operative vaginal delivery or c-section and uterine hyperstimulation with the risk of fetal heart rate abnormalities [*]. If the fetus is actually younger than the due date estimated, even by only two weeks, there is a vastly increased risk for fetal health issues [*].
Inducing labor at home may not carry the same risks as in a clinical setting, but that doesn’t mean it is without risks. Or that elective induction — inducing labor without a clear medical indication to do so — is a good idea to begin with.
Inducing Labor vs. Expectant Management
Whether to induce labor or wait is a question of timing and gestation.
There is evidence that risks to mother and baby increase beyond 39 weeks as pregnancy continues. In two large studies, the chance of a c-section at 41 weeks was 30–36% compared to 21% for mothers delivering during the 39th week. The frequency of third- and fourth-degree perineal lacerations, postpartum hemorrhage, and maternal febrile morbidity (postpartum fever exceeding 100.4) each also increase [*].
A 2009 study pondered the question of whether elective induction of labor or expectant management led to better maternal and infant outcomes. Upon review of more than 70 studies, they concluded that elective induction of labor at 41 weeks of gestation and beyond may be associated with a decrease in both the risk of c-section and of meconium-stained amniotic fluid (where the baby’s first stool passes into the amniotic fluid).
But they found the evidence regarding elective induction of labor prior to 41 weeks is insufficient to draw any conclusion, largely because of a lack of relevant data and the way the data studies were structured [*]. Other studies have found an association with increased health risks like jaundice and low birth weight [*].
We do know that infants carried to term experience a wide range of health benefits over preterm infants, even over a two-week difference. The brain is only two-thirds developed before 37 weeks, and the lungs, liver, and muscles are more fully developed at 40 weeks, too. Babies who are born at term also tend to suck and swallow better, making breastfeeding easier [*].
In a study that compared preterm, term, and late-term pregnancies, late-term pregnancy (41 0/7 weeks to 41 6/7 weeks) was more likely to be associated with macrosomia (babies exceeding 8 lbs. 13 oz.), meconium-stained amniotic fluid, and fetal distress, but there was no difference to term pregnancies when it came to serious maternal and neonatal adverse events [*].
But here’s the really important thing to know: due dates are estimates and they are rarely accurate. In a 2013 study of 18,700 Australian women, only 5% actually delivered on their due dates [*]. The most accurate delivery estimate is at the 20-week ultrasound, based on fetal measurements, but that, too, carries only a 7-day window of accuracy [*]. The window of accuracy goes down, not up, with later ultrasound scans because fetal growth becomes more variable as the pregnancy progresses.
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The exact causes of labor are unknown but there is evidence that when a baby is ready for life outside the womb, its body releases a chemical signal to the mother that triggers her hormones to begin labor [*]. So, no matter what method you try to induce labor at home, it’s likely not going to happen until your body and your baby are ready [*].
The trend in the U.S. at this time is toward more preterm births due to medical issues, not more late-term births, but they do occur about 5% of the time.
It’s understandable when you get to the end of term — or pass it — to want to expedite labor but always talk to your care team first before trying any natural method to induce labor. And remember, your due date is only an estimate. It could be off more than you think.
While activities like walking or sex are probably harmless, ingesting things that could have undesirable side effects (nausea, diarrhea, more forceful contractions) could be harmful to you and the baby.
The most natural method, all things considered, is to let your labor happen when your body and your baby say it’s time.