Nipple Stimulation for Natural Labor Induction

Does nipple stimulation really cause labor?

Can a breast pump induce labor?
Photo © Dorling Kindersley/Getty Images

You've enjoyed a healthy, happy, normal pregnancy. The nursery is ready, the car seat installed, the last of the thank-you notes for your baby shower signed, stamped, and delivered. But your due date has come and gone and although your obstetrician says everything looks fine and there's no need to intervene quite yet, you're ready to have this baby. Short of insisting that your doctor induce labor before he thinks it's necessary, is there anything you can to do help move things along?

All sorts of tips and tricks exist for stimulating labor, from eating spicy food to taking exhausting walks to have sex. None of these are likely to be harmful (unless chili peppers give you heartburn), but none are proven.

There is one technique for bringing on labor that has some scientific backing, however: nipple stimulation. It truly can take some time to work, but as long as your doctor says it's OK for you to try, it might be worth the effort. Here's why nipple stimulation can help induce labor and ways to do it.

Onboarding Oxytocin

Manipulating the nipples triggers the release of a hormone called oxytocin. This hormone has several effects in the body: It plays a role in sexual arousal and because it's released when a mother nurses her baby, it serves to help them to bond—one reason it sometimes is referred to as the love hormone.

Oxytocin also plays a role in uterine contractions throughout labor and delivery and beyond by setting off the initial contractions and keeping them going. After delivery, oxytocin is still in play, stimulating the continued contractions that are necessary for the uterus to return to its normal size and shape. In fact, a synthetic form of oxytocin called pitocin is what is used to induce labor.

Research shows that oxytocin is released when the nipples are manually stimulated. In a 2018 study, women in their 38th to 40th weeks of pregnancy followed a specific protocol for three days: Each woman stimulated each breast for 15 minutes for a total of one hour per day. Samples of saliva were taken at specific time intervals before and after each session.

At the end of three days, the women all had measurably higher levels of oxytocin in their saliva, prompting the researchers to conclude that the "breast stimulation protocol showed good feasibility in terms of practicality and acceptability among pregnant women" as a way to safely and naturally induce labor.

How to Stimulate Your Nipples

If you're pregnant, a few days past your due date, and anxious to meet your baby, nipple stimulation may be worth a try if, and only if, you check with your obstetrician first. The practice appears to be perfectly safe for normal, low-risk, full-term pregnancies, but only a medical professional who's been following your nine-month journey can say for sure that you fall into that category.

Once you get the green light, you have several options. You and/or your partner can manually stimulate your nipples; your partner can orally stimulate your nipples; if you have an older baby whom you're still nursing, you can put him to your breast; or you can use a breast pump.

If you or someone else is manually stimulating your nipples, gently roll them between your fingers. Focus not just on the tips of your nipples but on the areola (the ring of darker skin surrounding the nipple) as well: When a baby nurses, he massages this area as he sucks.

Ask your doctor for guidance regarding how long you should spend stimulating your nipples regardless of the method you choose. He may suggest a schedule along these lines: Focus on one breast at a time. Spend 15 minutes stimulating that one, then switch. Continue for an hour. Repeat three times a day. This may or may not encourage your baby to come along sooner but one thing is for sure: Your little bundle can't stay inside forever.

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