We discuss myths about what brings on labour to find out what’s true and what, if anything, might actually work.
One of the most common questions pregnant women are asked during pregnancy is ‘when is the baby due?’ So it’s understandable that this date becomes all-important and they might feel disappointed if their baby doesn’t stick to the schedule.
If that’s you and you’re wondering how to kick-start labour, it's helpful to remember that most babies do not arrive on their estimated due date. Here’s why.
Why don’t babies arrive on their estimated due date?
Medical professionals use Naegele’s rule to calculate gestational age, which is based on a standard length of pregnancy and the date of the last period. The ultrasound scan offered between 11 and 14 weeks can confirm or adjust this age (NICE, 2021a). There is some discussion about whether this rule, dating from the 19th century, is helpful as anything more than a guideline (Lawson, 2021). It's good to know that pregnancies can vary in length by 37 days, which is over five weeks! (Jucik et al, 2013)
So a 'term' pregnancy is defined as any time between 37 and 42 weeks. And that’s why women often sail beyond their estimated due date.
Can some foods help bring on labour?
You might have heard that eating certain foods can help to start labour but wonder whether they’re myths. So here’s a rundown of the popular home remedies and whether there’s a grain of truth in any of them.
Many pregnant women try eating hot curry, believing the laxative effect will stimulate the bowel and then the womb (Chaudhry et al, 2011). There’s no research showing curry has the desired effect of bringing on labour, though there is a chance of spicy food giving you heartburn if you are prone to it during pregnancy.
Fresh tropical fruits like pineapple, kiwi, mango and papaya are high in an enzyme called bromelain. This has never been tested in humans, although two small animal studies showed pineapple could have an effect on uterine tissue (Nuwankudu et al, 2015; Monji et al, 2016).
Pineapple is the popular one to try but the pregnant woman would need to eat a huge amount – which could cause an upset tummy. Still, reaching for fresh fruit is a good way to help maintain a healthy diet during pregnancy.
If you're a fan of dried fruit, then eating dates at the end of pregnancy might help to avoid induction (Al Kuran et al, 2011). One very small study in Jordan found that eating dried dates could help make women give birth closer to their due date and might help make labour shorter (Al Kuran et al, 2011). The theory is that dates help stimulate the release of oxytocin. But again, more research is needed to say for sure whether it really does help.
Raspberry leaf tea or tablets have long been a favourite among expectant parents (Ferguson, 2009). Raspberry leaf is popular because it's thought to tone the uterus, making contractions more effective (Ferguson, 2009).
Most research suggests that raspberry leaf has no effect on labour, although women in one study did have a shorter second stage of labour and were less likely to have an oxytocin drip than those who didn't take it (Bowman et al, 2021).
So if you are thinking about trying raspberry leaf tea, there is neither any evidence of harm nor any evidence of a positive effect. However, like anything in pregnancy, if you feel it is making you unwell, you can stop taking it and speak to your midwife.
Can sex kick-start labour?
Sex is often hailed as a way of bringing on labour because semen is rich in prostaglandins. Prostaglandins are present when the cervix softens in early labour, and they are the chemical used in hospital inductions. Having sex or an orgasm also increases levels of oxytocin the ‘love hormone’, which is needed in labour. While sex is often recommended for this purpose, it’s uncertain whether it makes a difference or not (Kavanagh et al, 2001).
Whatever the outcome, sex late in pregnancy won’t harm the baby, although the logistics might be tricky. Having sex after the waters have broken is not recommended because it may increase the risk of infection (NHS, 2021).
Can breast or nipple stimulation kick-start labour?
Breast stimulation is also often suggested because it encourages the body to produce oxytocin, the same hormone that causes contractions in labour (Kavanagh et al, 2005).
Research shows that breast stimulation increases the number of women in labour within 72 hours (Kavanagh et al, 2005). Women in the research performed gentle breast and nipple stimulation on one breast at a time, for a total of one to three hours a day (Kavanagh et al, 2005).
A more recent study showed that breast and nipple stimulation was also associated with a higher chance of vaginal birth (Singh et al, 2014). Breast stimulation can also reduce the chance of excessive blood loss after birth (Kavanagh et al, 2005).
The research was unable to show if breast stimulation would be safe or not for women with more complicated pregnancies (Kavanagh et al, 2005).
Can walking kick-start labour?
Exercise, including long walks, rocking back and forth on a birthing ball, or climbing stairs are all frequently suggested as ways to kick-start labour. The idea is that exercise moves the pelvis, helping the baby to move down and put pressure on the cervix. One study found exercise to be the most common method used to encourage labour at the end of pregnancy (Chaudhury, 2011).
No recent studies have looked at whether walking does help labour to begin, though women who are upright or walking in the early stages are known to have shorter labours (Lawrence et al, 2013). Staying active and fit in pregnancy will help you adapt to your changing shape and cope with labour, though you will find you need to slow down as pregnancy progresses (NHS, 2020).
Can complementary therapies help labour to start?
Aromatherapy, reflexology, acupuncture and pregnancy massage are often suggested to pregnant women who would like their labour to begin soon. They could be a nice, relaxing treat at the end of pregnancy. You will want to be sure that the practitioner is trained in pregnancy and has experience of treating pregnant women.
However, one study showed that using complementary therapies had no effect on labour starting (Levett et al, 2016). Other research found that acupuncture or acupressure softened the cervix but this did not mean the women who had these therapies would soon go into labour (Smith et al, 2017).
Still no change?
If you are eager to get things moving, don’t despair – it’s not all bad news. Late pregnancy is a good time to do things that help you unwind, like taking warm baths or doing some relaxation exercises.
Do membrane sweeps work?
A membrane sweep is where the midwife sweeps a finger or two around the cervix to separate the membranes around the baby from the cervix. This can release prostaglandins, which may help to start labour (NHS, 2020a).
A membrane sweep might increase the likelihood of labour starting and reduce the need for other forms of induction, but the evidence was low (Finucane et al, 2020). Membrane sweeping did not appear to affect how the baby was born (Finucane et al, 2020).
A membrane sweep can be performed at an antenatal appointment. Sweeps are offered after 39 weeks (NICE, 2021b).
It's good to be prepared and know that a membrane sweep can be uncomfortable and there can be slight bleeding and continued discomfort afterwards (NHS 2020a). Despite the discomforts, women surveyed after having the sweep said they would generally recommend it because they thought it might help to avoid a medical induction (Finucane et al, 2020).
The waiting game
Most women go into labour by 42 weeks (NICE, 2021b). As the end of pregnancy approaches, you will be offered information about induction, and time to think about the information and ask questions (NICE, 2021b). The timing of any proposed induction will depend on your age, health, and how the pregnancy is going. If you prefer to wait for labour to begin, you will be offered 'expectant management,' which means you and your baby will be monitored more frequently (NICE, 2021b). Some women however prefer not to have either induction or expectant management.
As difficult as it probably sounds, it’s best to try to stay calm and make the most of your last few days without a newborn to care for. You could use the time to socialise or plan in some treats that will help you relax. Your baby will be here before you know it, so now’s the time to enjoy doing something for you.
This page was last reviewed in December 2021.
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