One friend swears it was that 2-mile walk that got labor going. For another, it was a really spicy meal. While, from a medical standpoint, it's unclear whether these old wives' tales really work to jumpstart labor in moms-to-be already near their due dates, lots of women are trying them. According to a study from Ohio State University, over half of the women who reached 37 weeks of pregnancy admitted to trying methods like walking, having sex, eating spicy food, or nipple stimulation in order to induce labor. They also tried exercise, laxative use, acupuncture, masturbation, and herbal supplementation, says researchers.
Women who used "folklore" techniques tended to be younger (under 29), having their first baby, and pregnant beyond 39 weeks. Most women reported that their family and friends were the most common sources of information for these offbeat methods of inducing labor.
"There are all kinds of obstetrical folklore and old-wives tales out there," says Dr. Jonathan Schaffir, associate professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Ohio State University and lead author of the study, published in the journal Birth. "If it's not something perceived as being harmful, patients think there's no downside. Even if it doesn't work, it's something to pass the time."
It might sound like some harmless fun to pass the time before the big moment really does arrive, but researchers are concerned, not only about some of the methods that women may be trying, but about the fact that moms-to-be seem reluctant to share their labor starting attempts with their doctors. According to researchers, fewer than half of the women who used any these methods talked about it with a doctor.
"Clinicians should probably be aware that their patients might be trying to take labor matters into their own hands," says Dr. Schaffir. If a doctor or midwife doesn't come right out and ask about DIY labor induction, women should be up front about what they're doing to hurry labor along, even if it is just to hear that the method doesn't poise health risks.
Dr. Schaffir points out that the one method known to produce a physiological effect related to labor is nipple stimulation. This leads to the release of the hormone oxytocin, which can cause uterine contractions. "These contractions can be hard to control, and there's some potential downside in causing too many contractions," Dr. Schaffir says. "It's just not something I recommend because there is no established safe protocol."
Another method that may cause more harm than good is castor oil enema and laxative use. As Dr. Schaffir points out, research suggests that using castor oil as a laxative might indeed help labor start more quickly, but it has drawbacks, including diarrhea and the risk of dehydration for the mother, and increased potential for fetal bowel movements as well.