One of the biggest concerns students of mine have is how to avoid a medical induction. Those who understand the normalcy of birth and the benefits of limiting interventions know that induction can disrupt even the best of birth plans. It can put real fear into the hearts of women who want to avoid medication and C-sections, which are much more likely when being induced versus when entering labor spontaneously. So, it’s understandable that the alternative of inducing naturally can sound pretty appealing.
In general, the safest approach for mom and baby is to wait for labor to happen spontaneously. Spontaneous labor means that there are no outside factors prompting labor to start--you are waiting for your baby to get things going when they feel they are optimally positioned, adequately developed, and ready to greet the world. Thus, some of the same reasons to avoid medical induction methods can apply to natural induction methods. Natural methods are unlikely to work if your baby isn’t ready to be born (which is why most hospitals don’t start with them when getting baby out quickly is important). But there is always the possibility that there is a reason baby hasn’t started things up yet. Maybe they are not quite aligned where they want to be. Maybe they could use a little more time for a variety of reasons. Maybe you are not ready--maybe you’re exhausted, or stressed, or fearful, and this is holding baby back. Addressing these concerns by taking care of yourself and being gentle to yourself in these final week can make a big difference in telling your baby it is safe to be born. Our instincts are first for survival, after all!
But what if you and your provider agree that a medical induction is what is best for you and your baby(ies)? If induction is already on the table, you may want to try getting things started on your own to avoid the unpleasant medications and side effects of medically induced and managed labor. If you are facing a scheduled medical induction with dread, here are some things to try first (with your provider’s all-clear).
When You Decide to Induce Naturally First
Let’s say you’re scheduling the induction for a future date. You’ve agreed that this is the best choice, and you are also okay with going into labor before then. Why not try natural induction methods? Here are some methods with the most research behind them, and why they are thought to work. To be on the safe side, please check in with your provider before attempting to induce labor on your own, especially if you aren’t yet at term.
- Eat dates (the fruit). If you know that you are likely to be induced, or if you just want to potentially speed your labor, a popular study demonstrated that eating 6 dates a day starting at 35 weeks increased the likelihood of spontaneous labor, of the cervix begin more dilated at admission, and sped first stage labor. (1) A more recent study suggested that dates may reduce the need for augmentation but not necessarily induction (2), but since there isn’t any harm to eating dates unless you have dietary restrictions, it’s worth a try.
- Have sex. Having sex 3 times a day, once you are at term, has been shown to improve the likelihood of spontaneous labor (3). Semen contains prostaglandins. Prostaglandins soften the cervix naturally, and synthetic prostaglandins are used in the common medications to start an induction. A softened cervix can make dilation and effacement easier and faster. In addition, female orgasm can create “tightenings”, or Braxton-Hicks contractions, and late in pregnancy this can sometimes stimulate real contractions to get going! (4) Finally, semen has antibiotic properties (5), so if you’re up for it, it may help clear things out in preparation for the likely vaginal exams and internal medications associated with medical induction. Even so, you shouldn’t have sex if your waters have already broken, due to the increased risk of anything entering the vagina causing infection at that point (6).
- Try pumping. Nipple stimulation that mimics a baby suckling triggers the hormone oxytocin. This hormone release allows you to “let down” your milk to your baby, and it also triggers uterine contractions.This can get contractions going and can help pick up the speed of contractions while in labor (7). This is also why many women experience “after pains” when breastfeeding in the days after birth--let downs trigger uterine contractions that can be painful as your large distended uterus shrinks down to its normal size (8).
- Acupressure or acupuncture. In Eastern medicine, certain points on the body are thought to be tied to our body organs and life energy. In these traditions, putting pressure or small needles in certain areas is thought to be able to, among other things, stimulate the hormones you need to get labor going. Although you would need a trained provider who is skilled in working with pregnant women to provide acupuncture, acupressure can be done relatively simply with some guidance online. Popular points for labor include pressing your thumb on the roof of your mouth, pressing the side of your foot just under your ankle, and pressing your thumb in the middle of your hand (9).
- Give yourself permission to relax and welcome this baby. Sound silly? It shouldn’t. We evolved to give birth to our young when we were in a safe place. For example, it is a common occurrence for women who head to their birthplace too soon to have labor stall on the drive. This is adrenaline working against you--adrenaline is telling your body that it might not be safe to have your baby yet, and it will wait until things are calmer (10). So, if early labor seems to start and stop without getting anywhere, do something relaxing. Walking is excellent for clearing your mind and can also help speed labor by putting pressure on the cervix (11). You can also quite literally tell your baby that it is safe to come out! Your baby can hear you and can sense your emotions. We know now more than we ever have before that babies can perceive a great deal in the womb (12). Let your baby know that they are in good hands and that you are ready to bring them into this safe, loving family “on the outside.”