Most doctors do not recommend nipple stimulation to induce labor, but some anecdotal evidence exists for its effectiveness.
In this article, we consider the research on nipple stimulation and also look at the other home remedies that some people use to try to induce labor.
Can nipple stimulation induce labor?
Nipple stimulation may mimic breast-feeding and cause the brain to release oxytocin.
After a woman gives birth, stimulation of the nipples by a breast-feeding baby triggers the release of oxytocin. Oxytocin is a hormone that triggers uterine contractions that help the uterus return to its pre-pregnancy size.
As vaginal labor requires uterine contractions to move the baby down the birth canal, many women use nipple stimulation to try to encourage these contractions.
In a 2011 survey of postpartum women in the Midwestern United States, 7.5 percent of the 201 respondents said that they stimulated their nipples to try to induce labor.
A study in the journal PLoS One reports that 50 percent of women in Japan use nipple stimulation to help induce labor.
Researchers have conducted several studies regarding nipple stimulation and its effectiveness in inducing labor. These studies include the following:
- A 2015 study reported that nipple stimulation during vaginal delivery led to shorter phases of birth. The average duration of the first phase of birth was 3.8 hours for those using nipple stimulation. For those not using this method, it lasted an average of 6.8 hours.
- Another study investigated nipple stimulation in low-risk, first-time pregnancies. At 38 weeks, half of the women began massaging their breasts for 15–20 minutes three times a day. These women delivered their babies at an average of 39.2 weeks of pregnancy. Conversely, the women who did not delivered on average at 39.5 weeks. The study also showed lower rates of cesarean delivery in the stimulation group.
- A 2018 study published in the journal PLoS ONE asked 16 low-risk pregnant women at 38–40 weeks gestation to stimulate their nipples for 1 hour a day for three days. The researchers then took a sample of the women’s saliva to test it for oxytocin. The level of oxytocin present did not increase significantly until the third day. Of the 16 participants, six went into labor within 3 days of starting the nipple stimulation.
Most experiments on nipple stimulation and labor have involved women with low-risk pregnancies.
Low-risk pregnancies are those in which the women have no additional health risks. These health risks include high blood pressure, gestational diabetes, low or high amniotic fluid amounts, or other risks that could complicate the pregnancy.
How to use nipple stimulation for labor
The theory behind nipple stimulation is that it mimics breast-feeding and causes sensory cells in the nipples to signal the brain to release oxytocin.
Some women use a breast pump to stimulate the nipples. Others may prefer to use their hands or a partner’s mouth for stimulation.
Some ways to stimulate nipples with the hands include:
- Massaging the areola, which is the darker skin around the nipple. This area contains nerve endings that trigger the release of breast milk when the baby feeds. If a woman is performing self-massage, she may wish to place her fingertips just outside the areola, then massage inward toward the nipple. It is best to massage the nipple gently, in a rolling motion.
- Massaging one breast at a time to avoid overstimulation.
- Limiting the duration of the massage. The recommended length varies from study to study. Some recommend no more than 15 minutes while others suggest a maximum of an hour. A woman should stop stimulating her nipples if her contractions are less than 3 minutes apart.
Some women also use nipple stimulation during labor to reduce its duration. This may make contractions feel particularly strong.
Other labor induction techniques
Castor oil may stimulate uterine contractions. It can also result in stomach upset.
There are many other natural methods that people use to try to induce labor. Some of these techniques include:
- Castor oil: Some women believe that drinking castor oil can stimulate uterine contractions. However, castor oil is a natural laxative and may result in more episodes of stomach upset and diarrhea than during natural labor.
- Exercise: Some women may try walking or doing other exercises to encourage labor. However, there is no evidence that this is effective.
- Herbs: Some people believe that herbs, such as black cohosh, raspberry tea leaf, and evening primrose oil, can stimulate labor. However, always seek medical advice before using herbs as some may cause adverse effects on a baby’s heart rate.
- Pineapple: Some people say that the enzyme bromelain in pineapple can help to soften the cervix and stimulate labor. However, there is currently no evidence to support this theory.
- Sexual intercourse: People also say that sexual intercourse can induce labor by stimulating contractions. However, no study has proved this. Doctors may recommend that women who have placenta previa, a condition in which the placenta is close to or covering the cervix, refrain from sexual intercourse.
- Spicy foods: Many people try eating spicy foods to trigger uterine contractions. Although spicy foods can cause stomach irritation that could lead to some uterine contractions, they are not likely to induce labor.
Most methods to induce labor are either ineffective or pose the risk of unwanted side effects. As a result, doctors do not usually recommend them.
When to see a doctor
Before trying any methods to induce labor, a woman should talk to a doctor. If the doctor thinks that it is necessary to induce the birth, they can admit the woman to the hospital and prescribe medications to stimulate uterine contractions and labor.
Medications may include Pitocin, which is a synthetic version of oxytocin. However, doctors prefer not to use these methods unless they are medically necessary.
Are any natural ways to induce labor effective?
There is not enough data to suggest the effectiveness of any of the natural labor-inducing methods described above. Therefore, health professionals cannot recommend them as evidence-based approaches to labor induction.
Valinda Riggins Nwadike
Answers represent the opinions of our medical experts. All content is strictly informational and should not be considered medical advice.