pregnant woman sitting down

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 couples are asked during pregnancy is ‘when are you due?’ So it’s understandable that this date becomes all-important and you might feel disappointed if your baby doesn’t stick to the schedule.

You might also feel impatient because you’re uncomfortable or you might want to avoid a membrane sweep or induction.

If that’s you and you’re wondering how to kick-start labour, it’s important to try to relax. Try to remember that most babies do not arrive on their due date. Here’s why…

Why don’t babies arrive on their 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 your last period. There is some discussion about whether this method has been misinterpreted (Baskett, 2005). Studies have found that pregnancies can vary in length by over five weeks, which is 37 days (Jucik et al, 2013).

"A birth any time between 37 and 42 weeks is considered full term (NCCWCH, 2014). So that’s why women often sail beyond their due date and become eager for labour to begin."

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.

Curry

Many women try eating hot curry as the laxative effect is thought to stimulate the bowel and then the womb (Chaudhary et al, 2011). This could give you an upset tummy but there’s no research showing curry has the desired effect of bringing on labour. Spicy food might just give you heartburn instead (Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2018; Healthway, 2018)

Fruits

Fresh tropical fruits like pineapple, kiwi, mango and papaya are high in an enzyme called bromelain, which has been historically used to start labour. 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 you would need to eat a huge amount. 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, 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). This is because dates help stimulate the release of oxytocin. Again, more research is needed to say for sure whether it really does help.

Raspberry leaf

Raspberry leaf tea or tablets are a favourite among overdue mums-to-be because of the apparent stimulating effect on the uterus. But again, there’s a lack of comprehensive evidence (NHS Bolton, 2018). Also, it’s not recommended that you drink raspberry leaf tea if you have any pregnancy complications.

If you can stomach the taste and are going to try raspberry leaf tea, it should be drunk in moderation and only started after 32 weeks of pregnancy. It’s thought it might help tone the uterus to help with stronger contractions. It should be drunk regularly over weeks rather than drunk by the gallon in one go in an attempt to bring on labour.

Can sex kick-start labour?

Sex is often hailed as a way of bringing on labour because semen is rich in prostaglandins, a chemical used in hospital inductions. Having sex or an orgasm also ups your levels of oxytocin the ‘love hormone’, which is needed to kick-start labour. While sex is often recommended for this purpose, it’s uncertain whether it makes a difference or not (Kavanagh et al, 2001).

Whether or not it makes a difference, sex late in pregnancy won’t harm your baby although the logistics might be tricky. You should avoid sex if your waters have broken as this would increase the risk of infection (NHS, 2017a).

Can breast or nipple stimulation kick-start labour?

Breast stimulation is also often suggested because it’s encourages the body to produce oxytocin, the same hormone that causes contractions in labour (Kavanagh et al, 2005). Some research shows that using breast stimulation may help some women who are due for a third trimester induction to be 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).

Breast stimulation can also reduce haemorrhage rates after birth (Kavanagh et al, 2005).

However, do not use breast stimulation to try to start labour if you have any condition that could make your pregnancy or birth more complicated or higher risk (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. This is because they exert pressure on the pelvis and help the baby move lower down. Exercise is the method that most women prefer to use as they reach the end of pregnancy (Chaudhury, 2011).

No studies have looked at whether walking does help labour to begin but it’s known to help relaxation, which might have an effect (Scantamburlo, 2007; Humphrey et al, 2009; Nishi et al, 2014). Staying active and fit at the end of pregnancy will also help with labour.

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. But again, nobody knows for sure whether complementary therapies work. They could be nice, relaxing treat at the end of pregnancy as long as your practitioner is reputable and has experience with pregnant women.

One study showed that using complementary therapies did help reduce the number of epidurals and caesareans, and increased rates of normal vaginal birth (Levett et al, 2016). There’s some evidence that acupuncture or acupressure could result in cervical changes within 24 hours. Yet it’s not yet known whether this means the woman will go into labour (Smith et al, 2017).

If you are eager to get things moving, don’t despair as it’s not all bad news. Some studies have shown a link between relaxation and the ability to produce oxytocin (an important hormone for birth) (Scantamburlo, 2007; Humphrey et al, 2009; Nishi et al, 2014). So you could try doing things that help you unwind, like warm baths or relaxation exercises.

Do membrane sweeps work?

There is evidence that a membrane sweep increases the likelihood of labour starting within the next few days (Boulvain, 2005). You’ll probably be offered a membrane sweep, sometimes called a cervical sweep or stretch and sweep, if you haven’t gone into labour by 41 weeks.

A membrane sweep is where the midwife sweeps their finger around your cervix to stimulate your production of prostaglandins, which might kick-start labour (NHS, 2017b). This should increase the likelihood of labour starting in the next few days and decrease the need for induction. It’s also a safe method where there are no other complications (Boulvain, 2005). Membrane sweeps aren’t always effective though, and you might find it uncomfortable and bleed a slightly afterwards (NHS, 2017b).

If your labour hasn’t started by 42 weeks, you’ll be offered an induction as there are increased health risks to your baby beyond 42 weeks of pregnancy. If you decide not to have an induction, you will be monitored more closely to check the health of your baby.

The waiting game

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 October 2018.

Further information

Our support line offers practical and emotional support with feeding your baby and general enquiries for parents, members and volunteers: 0300 330 0700.

We also offer antenatal courses which are a great way to find out more about birth, labour and life with a new baby.

Make friends with other parents-to-be and new parents in your local area for support and friendship by seeing what NCT activities are happening nearby.

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Jukic AM, Baird DD, Weinberg CR, McConnaughey DR, Wilcox AJ. (2013) Length of human pregnancy and contributors to its natural variation. Human Reproduction. 28(10):2848-2855. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3777570/ [Accessed 4th October 2018]

Kavanagh  J, Kelly  AJ, Thomas  J. (2001) Sexual intercourse for cervical ripening and induction of labour. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews. (2):CD003093.  Available from: https://www.cochranelibrary.com/cdsr/doi/10.1002/14651858.CD003093/full [Accessed 4th October 2018]

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Nwankudu, N. O., Ndibe, N. U., & Ijioma, S. N. (2015) Oxytocic Effect of Ananas comosus Fruit Juice on Isolated Pregnant Rats Uteri. Nigerian Veterinary Journal, 36(4):1318-1326. Available from: https://www.ajol.info/index.php/nvj/article/view/147327 [Accessed 4th October 2018]

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