If your labor isn't progressing very well, your healthcare practitioner may try to help it along (or "augment" it) by doing something to stimulate your contractions. How is it done? Before augmenting your labor, your practitioner will carefully assess your contraction pattern and examine you to find out how much your cervix has effaced (thinned out) and dilated, as well as how far your baby has descended. She'll also pay close attention to your baby's heart rate in response to the contractions you're having, to make sure your baby will be able to tolerate stronger contractions. Then, if she determines that it's appropriate to augment your labor, you'll be given a drug called oxytocin. This drug (often referred to by the brand name Pitocin) is a synthetic form of the hormone that your body naturally produces during spontaneous labor. As a rule, you're shooting for three to five contractions every ten minutes. The goal is to give you just enough oxytocin to bring on contractions that dilate your cervix in a timely way and help your baby descend – but not so much that your contractions become too frequent or abnormally long and strong, which could stress your baby. While your labor is being augmented, your practitioner will use continuous electronic fetal monitoring to keep tabs on your contractions and your baby's well being. Are any risks associated with using oxytocin?
Can rubbing my nipples cause labor?
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When a woman's nipples are stimulated, her body releases the hormone oxytocin -- the same one that kicks off labor by causing the uterus to start contracting. (Pitocin, the drug that doctors used to induce labor, is a synthetic version of oxytocin.) Rubbing nipples may start contractions, but is unlikely to trigger actual labor unless her body is otherwise ready (your cervix is thinning and dilating, too, for example). What's more, very long or strong contractions from nipple stimulation can even be dangerous for your baby's heart. As vaginal labor requires uterine contractions to move the baby down the birth canal, many women use nipple stimulation to try to encourage these contractions.
Should I try nipple stimulation?
Whether you’re still waiting to reach your baby’s due date, or the 40-week mark has already come and gone, you might be curious about natural ways to induce labor.
With your doctor’s approval, there are some ways you can get things rolling at home. One of the most effective things you can do is actually nipple stimulation.
Here’s what you need to know about this practice, how to do it, and what questions you’ll want to ask your doctor.
Note: If you have a high-risk pregnancy, nipple stimulation might be dangerous. Always talk to your doctor before trying any induction techniques.
Is it safe to induce at home?
In a study published in the journal Birth, 201 women were asked if they tried to induce labor naturally at home. Of the group, about half said they tried at least one method, such as eating spicy food or having sex.
You should always speak to your doctor before trying any induction techniques. That being said, the majority of home induction methods aren’t backed by scientific evidence, so their effectiveness is mostly measured by anecdotal accounts.
The effectiveness of nipple stimulation does have some solid scientific evidence. But depending on your medical history, the method may or may not be safe for you to try.
If you’re concerned with going far past your due date, here are some questions you might want to ask your doctor:
- What monitoring do you use after 40 weeks?
- What types of natural or at-home induction methods do you recommend, if any?
- What types of induction methods do you perform medically if labor doesn’t begin on its own?
- At what point would you consider medically inducing labor if it doesn’t begin on its own?
- At what point do you recommend I come to the hospital once contractions begin?
- What’s the deal with nipple stimulation?
- Rubbing or rolling your nipples helps the body release oxytocin. Oxytocin plays a role in arousal, initiating labor, and bonding between mother and child. This hormone also makes the uterus contract after labor, helping it return to its prepregnancy size.
Stimulating the breasts may also help bring on full labor by making contractions stronger and longer. In fact, in traditional inductions, doctors often use the drug Pitocin, which is a synthetic form of oxytocin.
In a study published in Worldviews on Evidence-Based Nursing, a group of 390 Turkish pregnant women were randomly assigned to one of three groups during their labors: nipple stimulation, uterine stimulation, and control.
The results were compelling. The women in the nipple stimulation group had the shortest durations of each phase of labor and delivery.
According to the study, the average duration was 3.8 hours for the first phase (dilation), 16 minutes for the second phase (pushing and delivery), and five minutes for the third phase (delivery of the placenta).
Even more interesting, none of the women in the nipple stimulation or uterine stimulation groups needed to have a cesarean delivery.
By comparison, many women in the control group needed other induction methods, like synthetic oxytocin, to get things going. Over 8 percent of women in the control group had a cesarean delivery.
How do I perform nipple stimulation?
Before you get started, note that this method of labor stimulation is only recommended for normal pregnancies. Its effects in late pregnancy can be powerful.
On the other hand, light or occasional sucking or tugging on breasts during earlier pregnancy is not likely to bring on labor.
Step 1: Choose your tool
For the best results, you want to mimic a baby’s latch as closely as you can. You can use your fingers, a breast pump, or even your partner’s mouth to stimulate your nipples.
If you have an older baby or toddler who is still nursing, that might also provide good stimulation.
Shop for a breast pump.
Step 2: Focus on the areola
The areola is the dark circle that surrounds your actual nipple. When babies nurse, they massage the areola, not just the nipple itself. Use your fingers or palm to gently rub your areola through thin clothing or directly on the skin.
Step 3: Use care
It is possible to get too much of a good thing. Follow these guidelines to prevent overstimulation:
- Focus on one breast at a time.
- Limit stimulation to just five minutes, and wait another 15 before trying again.
- Take a break from nipple stimulation during contractions.
- Stop nipple stimulation when contractions are three minutes apart or less, and one minute in length or longer.
- Always speak with your doctor before using nipple stimulation to induce labor.
What are some other safe labor inducing techniques?
You can also use nipple stimulation in combination with other natural labor inducing techniques.
Most methods you’ll read about don’t have scientific backing, so don’t be discouraged if they don’t send you into the hospital in full labor soon after trying them.
If you’re full-term and have your doctor’s permission, try the following:
- spicy foods
- bumpy car ride
- evening primrose oil
- red raspberry leaf tea
When should you head to the hospital?
When the day comes, you’ll likely know you’re going into labor. You’ll feel your baby drop lower into your pelvis, lose your mucus plug, and you’ll probably start to get regular contractions.
In the early stages of labor, these contractions may feel like dull pressure or mild discomfort. Start timing the contractions as soon as you notice them.
In the early stages, contractions may be 5 to 20 minutes apart and last around 30 to 60 seconds. As you approach active labor, they’ll likely get stronger and more uncomfortable. The time between contractions will shorten to 2 to 4 minutes, and they’ll last between 60 and 90 seconds.
If your water breaks before contractions begin, call your doctor to find out the next steps. Also let your doctor know if you experience any bleeding. Otherwise, you might consider heading to the hospital when your contractions have been just five minutes apart for over an hour.
Your individual timeline will depend on a number of factors, so it’s best to always keep an open line of communication with your doctor.
What’s the takeaway?
The end of pregnancy can be a trying time. You may be uncomfortable, exhausted, and anxious to meet your baby. The good news is, no matter how you might feel, you won’t be pregnant forever. Speak with your doctor about what actions might be safe for you to try.
Otherwise, try to have some patience, take care of yourself, and rest as much as you can before the marathon of labor begins.
The bottom line
Nipple stimulation is an effective way to induce labor, backed by scientific research. Massaging the nipples releases the hormone oxytocin in the body. This helps initiate labor and makes contractions longer and stronger. Speak with your doctor about whether nipple stimulation is safe for you to try.