Using Castor Oil to Induce Labor

Pregnant woman holding her belly

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Castor oil was once routinely prescribed by many doctors and midwives to induce labor. The theory of labor induction with castor oil is that it acts as a stimulant to the bowels, which irritates the uterus and causes contractions. This recommendation is not as common as it once was because of the lack of evidence for its efficacy. Additionally, taking castor oil often has unpleasant side effects, particularly the possibility of dehydration, stomach cramps, and diarrhea.

What Is Castor Oil?

Castor oil is a vegetable oil derived from the castor bean, which contains ricinoleic acid. It has been used for generations to help ease constipation or induce vomiting when needed, much like syrup of ipecac. It is odorless but foul-tasting. Some of its other uses include as a topical application to stimulate hair growth and as a skin lubricant.

Castor Oil and Labor Induction

Castor oil is taken orally, and for some women, this may hasten the onset of labor. While some mothers report feeling the stirring of their intestines within an hour or two of using castor oil to induce labor, others are not affected.

As noted above, using castor oil may promote labor by stimulating contractions in the uterus, much like it does in the intestines and bowels. More research is needed but data from limited medical studies indicate that if castor oil has an effect that labor may be more likely to start in the first 24 hours after ingesting castor oil.

Side Effects of Castor Oil

If you take castor oil, know that you're likely to experience some unpleasant side effects, as well as the unpalatable taste of the tonic. The side effects of castor oil may include:

There are practitioners who do not recommend castor oil because of potential side effects like dehydration (from loose stools and/or vomiting), fetal distress, and causing the baby to pass meconium (the first bowel movement) before birth. However, some studies do show that using castor oil for induction is a safe option that does not result in a higher prevalence of these complications.

Still, care must be taken to avoid dehydration, which can be dangerous for laboring mothers. Plus, consider that the side effects of castor oil could deplete energy stores, making labor and delivery more difficult. 

Castor Oil Safety

The vast majority of studies that have looked at castor oil for labor induction found no significant difference in the type of birth (cesarean or vaginal) or the length of labor. They also did not find evidence of increased problems like infection or meconium staining in the amniotic fluid. The biggest risk was maternal tolerance, which means how well the mothers tolerated the castor oil. One study found that every single mother who took castor oil experienced some nausea, with or without vomiting.

Additionally, as noted above, there is also a risk of dehydration if you have excessive vomiting or diarrhea. If so, be sure you are getting enough fluids either by drinking water or, if, in a hospital, you may get IV fluids, if needed.

Never attempt a castor oil induction without working with your practitioner. It is always wise to talk to your midwife or doctor about any induction method before using it.

Additionally, induction before your due date is not a good idea if there is no medical reason. Plus, remember that even if you are a good candidate for induction, a castor oil induction may not be the best option for you.

Does Castor Oil Work to Induce Labor?

There are reports of having the baby within hours of a castor oil induction or the induction taking days if it works at all. Of course, there are many of the same reports (labor happening suddenly and quickly as well as delayed or prolonged labors) from women who do not take castor oil. More research is needed as studies are mixed on efficacy (some show success rates of over 50% and others show no benefit) and there are not many large studies.

However, a five-year 2018 retrospective study found that low-risk pregnant women over 40 weeks gestation who were given castor oil were significantly more likely to go into labor within 24 hours than the control group. Interestingly, another 2018 study of 81 pregnant women found that castor oil was effective at inducing labor in multiparous women (women who have already had at least one baby) but had little to no effect on nulliparous women (first-time moms).

Alternatives to Castor Oil

When labor has yet to start and there is no medical reason to induce, the reasonable alternative recommendation to castor oil (or using any interventions) is to do nothing and simply wait for labor to begin on its own. If there is a medical need for induction of labor, there are many options available, including:

  • Artificially stripping or rupturing the membranes (breaking the bag of waters)
  • Foley catheter induction: a catheter with an attached, deflated balloon is inserted into the cervix via the vagina. The balloon is then inflated to put pressure on the cervix and encourage dilation
  • Nipple stimulation via a breast pump or manually
  • Prostaglandins (which may be delivered in a variety of ways)
  • Using Pitocin: an IV medication commonly used to jumpstart contractions

The decision to use one of these methods or a combination of them should be between you and your practitioner. Some alternatives may be more appealing to you and/or may be more appropriate and safe in your specific case.

A Word From Verywell

In the end, the medical literature on castor oil induction is unclear, and much of the evidence is anecdotal. The known side effect of nausea is something to weigh heavily. If you are interested in trying this induction method, talk to your healthcare provider to ensure that there is no known reason for you to avoid it. That said, chances are they may have a more efficacious induction method to offer if needed.

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  2. Gilad R, Hochner H, Savitsky B, Porat S, Hochner-Celnikier D. Castor Oil for Induction of Labor in Post-date Pregnancies: A Randomized Controlled Trial. Women Birth. 2018 February;31(1):e26-e31. doi:10.1016/j.wombi.2017.06.010

  3. Mozurkewich EL, Chilimigras JL, Berman DR, et al. Methods of Induction of Labour: a Systematic Review. BMC Pregnancy Childbirth. 2011;11:84. doi:10.1186/1471-2393-11-84.

  4. Kelly AJ, Kavanagh J, Thomas J. Castor Oil, Bath and/or Enema for Cervical Priming and Induction of Labour. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2013 Jul 24;(7):CD003099. doi: 10.1002/14651858.CD003099.pub2.

  5. Neri I, Dante G, Pignatti L, Salvioli C, Facchinetti F. Castor oil for induction of labour: a retrospective study. J Matern Fetal Neonatal Med. 2018;31(16):2105-2108. doi:10.1080/14767058.2017.1336223

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