At least weekly we get a question about how to get labor started at home. And it makes sense… I remember so well that feeling of desperation starting around week 38 of all three of my pregnancies. I just wanted to hold my baby and I was DONE being pregnant.
So, while there is no magic button we can push to start labor at home, there are definitely things you can do to help the process along. One of those things is nipple stimulation.
Now I know… this may sound a little strange. I know when I first heard it, I was like “whaatttt… you want me to massage my nipples and somehow that will get labor going?” But trust me on this one - the evidence is actually really positive for its effectiveness!
Before we go any further, though, I want to mention that there are risks and it’s really important (like REALLY important) that you ask your doctor first before trying this. Especially if you’re high risk and are going to be induced for high blood pressure or some other issue that requires monitoring… please ask first! This is not medical advice and anything that I write is not recommending a course of action, one way or the other.
If you’re planning on calling your doctor’s office to ask them about this: here’s a handy script you can use to explain what you’d like to try:
“I am ____ weeks pregnant and I was wondering if it would be okay for me to try nipple stimulation to get my labor started? Are there any risks that I need to be aware of for my specific situation?”
The Science Behind Nipple Stimulation
First let’s talk about the science of nipple stimulation and why it’s so great at getting labor kick-started (or at least improving your Bishop Score).
Oxytocin is known as the “love hormone.” It promotes bonding & is present during intercourse, during childbirth and when you breastfeed. Specifically for childbirth, oxytocin stimulates contractions. Pitocin is the synthetic version of oxytocin and is what is used to induce labor at the hospital.
When your nipples are stimulated (via breastfeeding, breast pump or manually), your body releases oxytocin. When this is released - contractions usually begin. These contractions may or may not be strong (depending on many factors), but at the least, they can help your cervix dilate and efface.
This is all good news if you’re past date and needing to get labor started, because nipple stimulation can be done at home, either manually or with a breast pump.
Curious about other forms of natural induction? Take our birth class! We go through all the evidence based ways to induce labor naturally (and nope, spicy food doesn’t make the list). Click here to learn more
The evidence for nipple stimulation is some of the strongest out there, in comparison to other methods of at-home induction.
There have been many studies done. One study (Cochrane 2005) looked at five different studies comparing women who did breast stimulation with women who did not. Overall, there was a significant increase in the number of people in the breast stimulation group who went into labor over a 72 hour period (37% vs only 6%). However, this result was only found in women whose cervix was already a bit dilated and effaced - for women with an “unfavorable cervix” - breast stimulation didn’t help. Also another fun fact - the rate of postpartum hemorrhage significantly decreased in the group who did breast stimulation. There was also no reports of uterine hyperstimulation, increase in c-section rates or meconium staining.
Other studies also found that breast stimulation results in higher Bishop scores (a way to measure how favorable a cervix is for labor starting), labor beginning sooner and a higher level of Oxytocin in the saliva after breast stimulation.
There was one report of a woman who experienced uterine tachysystole (frequent uterine contractions) and fetal heart rate decelerations for a period of time after she performed breast stimulation during labor.
So, there are risks, but it will be up to you & your doctor to weigh the risks and benefits for your situation. For many women facing a hospital induction for a non-threatening issue, nipple stimulation is worth trying.
How to Do It
Most sources recommend the following:
Use a breast pump for 15 minutes on each side, for up to an hour at a time. If you begin to experience intense contractions at any point, you can stop pumping and take a walk or do hip circles on a birth ball to keep things moving. If things still don’t get started, you can repeat this process up to three times a day (but be sure to double check with your doctor about the specific times, though).
Not sure how to use the breast pump? Take our breastfeeding class. Click Here! This short but jam-packed class will get you completely ready to breastfeed with confidence. We make things simple and practical - and yep, we talk about how to pump too!
A Final Note
I want to end by saying - and you may hate me for this, especially if you’re in your third trimester - that if your body and baby are not ready for labor, there’s not much that will make that change at home. The onset of labor is this magical thing that even scientists do not fully understand.
For some mamas, protecting their sanity is more important than doing all the things to start labor. Sometimes, moms can try to start labor so hard that they end up creating too much tension around them, which has a negative effect on labor onset. I know it’s easier said than done (trust me… I KNOWWW!!! I went to 41 weeks and 5 days with my first), but patience really is the best thing. Try to enjoy the last couple weeks of your pregnancy and remember that no one is pregnant for forever.