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Inducing Labor at Home: Is It Right for You?

“I didn’t want her born on Christmas,” recalls Tania Dowdle of Eastchester, New York, about her second daughter, due to arrive just one day before the holiday. Dowdle, a registered nurse who had worked at birth centers throughout her career, was confident she could prod on Mother Nature by trying natural labor-inducing methods at home. Not a fan of castor oil, Dowdle and her husband tried frequent sex, which many doctors and midwives believe can spur labor. But their efforts were to no avail, and Dowdle’s daughter was born one day after her due date—on Christmas.

If you’re looking for a way to speed up your due date—maybe shave a few days off your pregnancy by inducing labor at home—you should know that there have been no substantial studies to prove the effectiveness of at-home methods. Yet women everywhere still swear by them. Here are some common questions, and their answers, that many pregnant women have about inducing labor at home.

When can I use at-home techniques for inducing labor?

“A baby is considered term at 37 weeks,” explains Dr. Cynthia Flynn, CNM, PhD, president-elect of the American Association of Birth Centers and a certified nurse midwife at the Columbia Birth Center in Kennewick, Washington. “But that doesn’t mean that the baby is ready to be born.” Inducing labor before your baby is fully developed poses serious health risks. At-home techniques for labor should only be tried once you’re full term at 40 weeks. And Dr. Flynn cautions that for first-time moms, “A normal due date is five days past the due date.” Consult with your healthcare provider before you try any at-home techniques for labor induction.

Can castor oil and cohosh cause contractions?

Castor oil and blue cohosh are two popular herbal supplements often recommended to help labor progress. Although researchers are not sure exactly how and why castor oil works, the prevailing theory is that as a laxative, castor oil causes intestinal spasms that can trigger uterine contractions, leading to labor.

“There’s no hard and fast rule about how much castor oil to take,” explains Dr. Flynn. “I’ve known some women to take one ounce, others up to six ounces.” Yet drinking castor oil should not be taken lightly. The taste is terrible so most midwives suggest mixing it with something else to make it more palatable, and, perhaps more important to note, castor oil causes diarrhea.

Midwives may recommend blue cohosh to help make weak uterine contractions stronger. Like castor oil, it should not be taken unless you’re already experiencing some contractions. Black cohosh is sometimes used along with blue cohosh because it is thought to regulate contractions. Again, there have been no conclusive studies about the effectiveness of cohosh, although midwives have been using it for years to help labor progress in patients.

Dr. William Camann, director of Obstetric Anesthesia at Brigham & Women’s Hospital at the Harvard Medical School and the co-author of Easy Labor: Every Woman’s Guide to Choosing Less Pain and More Joy During Childbirth, cautions that cohosh “is associated with side effects that can be serious, such as severe high blood pressure, stroke, and heart and lung problems.”

Lastly, keep in mind, that not all herbal supplements are created equal. The strength and concentration of the supplements can vary, points out Dr. Flynn.

Are there other herbal supplements that induce labor?

Primrose oil and raspberry tea are sometimes recommended, but not to trigger contractions. Instead, Flynn often suggests both of these supplements to patients to help soften the cervix, theoretically making labor easier once it starts.

Is it true that sex can spur contractions?

There have been few significant studies as to whether intercourse can stimulate labor. Midwives and physicians alike theorize that sex may induce or speed along labor for a variety of reasons. First, Dr. Flynn explains that semen contains prostaglandins, which help prepare the cervix for labor. Second, “the hormone oxytocin, known to be important for the onset of labor, is stimulated in response to nipple stimulation and orgasm,” says Dr. Camann.

“It’s common wisdom,” says Dr. Flynn, “and plenty of pregnant women can attest that if a pregnant women is already dilated to two or three centimeters, she can go home and have intercourse enough times to get labor started.”

Does walking help bring on labor?

On its own, walking will probably not cause you to go into labor, but if you’re already in the beginning stages of labor, walking may speed things along. While there is no medical evidence to support this contention, Dr. Camann says another way to look at it is that women with relatively easy and normal labors are more likely to also want to get up and walk around, whereas women having more difficult labors typically choose to lie down. “So what comes first? Are women who walk around really helping along their labors, or are women who are having an easy labor just more likely to be up and walking around? Hard to say,” concludes Dr. Camann.

Should I just wait it out?

“Nature is a good obstetrician,” advises Dr. Camann. “The best way to approach labor (in the absence of medical complications) is to wait until labor starts on its own. The onset of normal, spontaneous labor is still one of the greatest mysteries of modern obstetrics.”

So enjoy your last few days being pregnant—and if you want to help your labor along just remember, as Dr. Flynn will tell you, “If your body isn’t ready, none of these methods is likely to put you into labor.”

A word of caution: You should not try any of these methods without carefully reviewing them with your healthcare provider.

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