How to induce labor safely, and which natural methods are backed by science

A pregnant mother holding her stomach.
Don’t trust most natural remedies for inducing labor. JGI/Tom Grill/Getty Images
  • To induce labor, doctors will either use medication or a catheter-like device.
  • The only natural option for labor induction that is safe and may work is nipple stimulation.
  • Do not rely on natural methods like castor oil, hot baths, acupuncture, or evening primrose oil.
  • Visit Insider’s Health Reference library for more advice.

For the roughly 10% of women who haven’t given birth by 42 weeks, inducing labor may be a viable option. In fact, depending on your health and the health of the pregnancy, doctors may choose to induce labor anytime after 39 weeks.

Women should speak with a doctor first, at which point the doctor will decide if inducing labor is the safest approach. “It’s always about weighing the risks and benefits of the mom and the baby,” says Lyndsey Harper, MD, an OB-GYN Hospitalist at Baylor Scott & White Health. Here’s what you need to know about how induction of labor works and when doctors may recommend it.

How labor induction works

The way it works is that in order to give birth, a woman’s cervix needs to soften so that it’s flexible enough to stretch and allow the baby through. This process is called cervical ripening, and it’s one of two steps doctors will perform to induce labor. The second step is to kickstart labor contractions.

In order to soften the cervix, doctors will either use a device – like a type of catheter. They’ll also consider medication, like oral misoprostol, to induce contractions.

“It depends on where you’re starting,” Harper says. “In my practice, we often use a combination of these two methods.”

Don’t trust most of the at-home labor-inducing tips

You may have heard of “natural” methods for inducing labor, like herbal compounds, hot baths, acupuncture, and having sex. However, few of these home remedies are supported by science, says Harper.

In fact, some of these methods can be dangerous, and doctors advise against more risky remedies like castor oil or evening primrose oil.

A low-risk option, however, is nipple stimulation. Researchers have found this method may help induce labor through the release of oxytocin, which is the key hormone involved in labor contractions.

But before trying any at-home induction techniques, women should consult their doctor.

When a doctor will recommend inducing labor

“Sometimes it’s safer to induce labor than it is to be pregnant,” says Harper. “There are lots of different medical situations that call for induction of labor.”

For a late-term pregnancy – between 41 and 42 weeks – or a post-term pregnancy – more than 42 weeks – labor induction is usually recommended to offset the increased risk of complications such as fetal death, an infection in the womb, or severe vaginal tearing during childbirth, Harper says.

Conversely, there are health risks if you’re induced too early. When inducing labor between 36 and 38 weeks, Harper says respiratory issues for the baby are the most common complication.

What to do if you don’t have a medical reason but still want to induce labor

Doctors will also induce labor upon the mother’s request if she’s beyond 39 weeks – and if it’s safe and appropriate.

In contrast, the doctor will likely deny inducing labor for a woman who has not reached at least 39 weeks and has no health reasons to do so, Harper says. Instead, the doctor may encourage the mother to wait.

Ultimately, every pregnancy is different, meaning there is no right time to induce labor for everyone.

“This is a highly individualized recommendation that includes the medical safety of the pregnancy with the preferences of the patient,” says Harper. “The data supports that between 39 weeks and 40 and a half weeks is the golden time to go into labor or be induced,” Harper says.

Insider’s takeaway

Before inducing labor, you should speak with a doctor first for guidance. If you choose to give birth in a hospital, your doctor will use medication or a catheter-like device to induce. You should avoid risky and unproven natural options for inducing like castor oil and acupuncture. The only natural option that may work is nipple stimulation.

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