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The Oxytocin Connection: Nipple Stimulation To Induce Labor – Can It Really Help?

Hi Mama. How are you doing? As your due date approaches, the anticipation of meeting your little one can be both exciting and overwhelming. If you’re eager to kickstart the labor process naturally, you may have come across various techniques to meet your baby sooner. One of which is nipple stimulation to induce labor.

I know it may sound a bit unconventional. But, nipple stimulation to induce labor isn’t a new concept at all. In fact, it has been used for centuries in tribal societies.

In a survey of Canadian midwives, 80% reported that based on their experience, they found nipple stimulation an effective way to induce or augment labor. These midwives believed nipple stimulation to be both effective and helpful in reducing the need for synthetic oxytocin.

In this blog post, we will delve into the intriguing world of nipple stimulation as a natural method for encouraging labor. By understanding how it works and its potential benefits, you can make an informed decision about whether to explore this approach.

So, let’s unravel the secrets behind nipple stimulation and its role in initiating the beautiful journey of childbirth.

Note: It is important to consult with your healthcare provider before attempting any labor induction technique to ensure it is safe and suitable for your specific situation.

Does Nipple Stimulation Help With Labor?

Nipple stimulation has been recognized as a potential method to help induce or augment labor. Augmenting labor simply means to use extra tools to turn up the dial and increase contractions so your body can make change and you can dilate.

This is often done with medication, like pitocin, which mimics your body’s natural oxytocin. It can also be done with other more natural techniques like nipple stimulation.

When the nipples are stimulated, it triggers the release of oxytocin, a hormone responsible for stimulating uterine contractions. These contractions are crucial for the progression of labor.

But, the question really is, how much nipple stimulation and how soon do you need labor?

My Experience With Nipple Stimulation And Labor

My interest in nipple stimulation to induce labor peeked while I was researching a question a client had asked me. I stumbled upon a study that showed that when moms performed a daily breast massage every day for a week (38 weeks and on mamas), their Bishop score went up, and they were more likely to go into labor themselves instead of needing an induction.

The Bishop score is a numerical assessment that evaluates the readiness of a woman’s cervix for labor based on five criteria: cervical dilation, effacement, consistency, position, and fetal station.

So when a Bishop score goes up, it means that the mom is more likely to go into labor soon or be successful with an induction.

Another cool fact was that moms who did the daily breast massage and still had to have an induction were more likely to give birth vaginally and avoid surgery.

Since that time, I have begun sending my clients information and instructions on how to express milk starting at 37 or 38 weeks. And you know what? They’ve had fewer inductions, fewer surgeries and fewer difficulties with getting nursing established.

A breast massage is the same thing as nipple stimulation. And there is plenty of evidence to back it’s use.

In my opinion, Nipple Stimulation has a place in preparing for birth. But – I don’t know if the term induction is the right word for how it helps.

How Long Do I Have To Do Nipple Stimulation To Go Into Labor?

Unfortunately, labor doesn’t always work predictably. We each have unique bodies that respond to input differently. In fact, even in the most controlled setting, at the hospital, with your OBGYN, using the most modern medications available, 20% of induction attempts fail at starting labor.

Studies that look at nipple stimulation have a few flaws. One, they have radically different approaches. Two, many of them are from the 80s. Three, there are some low quality studies I’ve seen used to back the use of nipple stimulation on other blogs.

As I present these ideas, please take them for what they are. Tools and strategies that could help. But, ones that don’t have enough research behind them to truly prove if they are safe and effective for everyone.

Keep in mind your body is unique and on it’s own prefect journey. Stay aware of how any intervention makes you feel. And, remain in close communication with your care provider, even if you are ‘just’ stimulating your nipples.

Let’s take a look at how nipple stimulation works in different scenarios.

Nipple Stimulation For Inducing Labor In The Next Few Days

If you’re near the end of pregnancy, and you are just tired of being pregnant, and you want to try all the fun ways to go into labor – expressing colostrum is the way to go. It’s gentle, it’s well researched and it helps your cervix soften.

But, what if you are a bit more impatient, and you really just want to be done. There is a method that has been studied and shown somewhat effective at starting labor in the next few days in low risk moms.

How Is It Done?

This method is for moms who are 38-40 weeks pregnant at least. Stimulate one breast for 15 minutes, then move the the other side and stimulate that breast for 15 minutes. Repeat 15 minutes on each side so you have reached an hour total of nipple stimulation.

A breast pump on a normal setting that does not cause you discomfort would be okay too. Do this once a day until labor begins.

If you’re wondering what ‘stimulate your breast’ means this is how to do it:

  1. Starting from the outer areola (the pink part) pinch your breast and drag your thumb, forefinger and middle finger towards the nipple. If you are unsure how fast to do this, set a metronome at 69 beats per minute.
  2. Make sure you are doing this with a firm pressure, but one that does not hurt.
  3. Feel free to use a fragrance free massage oil if it makes it more comfortable.

If you REALLY want to give your body a stronger nudge, you may want to know that some studies had moms repeat this process up to three times a day. But most of the studies only had moms stimulate their nipples once a day.

What Were The Study Results?

Luckily there are plenty of studies that give us a good idea how well an hour of nipple stimulation a day works. A 2005 meta-analysis of randomized control trials found nipple stimulation increases the chances of labor beginning. Almost 720 full-term, meaning at least 38 weeks along, women were assigned to either stimulate their nipples or not.

Of those women, almost 38% went into labor within 3 days of beginning the nipple stimulation, compared to 6.4% of the women who didn’t do any nipple stimulation. 

These results show that an hour of nipple stimulation a day, at least 3 days in a row, can help some moms go into labor. But – it won’t start labor for everyone.

How Will I Know If It Worked For Me?

You will know if nipple stimulation worked for you when you start having contractions! Early contractions feel a lot like menstrual cramps. But, as they get stronger, they grow in intensity. If you’re unsure what you’re looking for, check out our articles on what contractions feel like throughout labor, and how to time contractions.

If you aren’t feeling contractions, and you’re looking for a more direct, but non medical way to induce labor, you may want to discuss using castor oil to induce labor with your midwife. You could also speak with them about the option for a membrane sweep;

If you haven’t taken a childbirth class yet, we would love to help you prepare for your birth experience in our childbirth course. This is a great place to learn start to finish what labor will be like, how to handle contractions, what to do when and how to prepare for a great empowering birth.

Nipple Stimulation For Inducing Labor Immediately

But what if it is just time for you to be done? You’re not thinking about going into labor soon, it’s time to have your baby now. Well, there are studies that look at more continuous methods of nipple stimulation with the goal of labor today.

But – keep in mind, if you are truly a candidate for an induction, you are probably not low risk. I definitely would not attempt this method without the continuous monitoring offered by the hospital.

But, if the goal is to be a bit creative and use less oxytocin in your induction, it may of interest to you.

How Was It done?

Most studies have used nipple stimulation for a short period of time. Conservative studies stopped nipple stimulation after an hour. More aggressive studies had moms repeat that hour 3 times a day.

However, some studies use nipple stimulation more continuously. One strategy, which was available to any woman admitted to the hospital for an induction, used continual breast pump stimulation.

A breast pump was set to normal (250 Hg of negative pressure). The nurse would alternate the pump from one breast to the other every 15 minutes. This was continued until contractions were 3 minutes apart. Contractions were maintained at 3 minutes apart by turning down the breast pump or turning it off all together.

What Were The Results?

This study had a surprising result – The time from stimulation to the onset of regular uterine activity with contractions 3 minutes apart were significantly shorter in the nipple stimulation group than the group using oxytocin.

Once the women were in active labor, there was no difference in the length of labor or the type of delivery (surgical or vaginal) between the group that used nipple stimulation and the group that used an oxytocin drip.

One way to think of this is that nipple stimulation got the job done for many moms. However – I would like to point out that this study was done in 1986 – so a lot has changed since then.

Also, this has not been repeated, or replicated in any way that I could find. Which means, I wouldn’t necessarily trust this method for myself or recommend it to you.

An Interesting Observation About Nipple Stimulation

In Japan, nipple stimulation is so common that it is done by half of pregnant women before labor or during early labor! Though nipple stimulation is only one of the MANY differences between the United States and Japanese approach to birth, I think we do have something to learn from their culture.

The United States Maternal Mortality Rate is 11 times higher than the Japanese. And, the Japanese infant mortality rate is 1/3 of that in the United States.

Are there benefits to nipple stimulation beyond starting or progressing labor?

One other benefit of including nipple stimulation as part of your induction strategy is that it may decrease the chance of postpartum hemorrhage. In one study researchers found a total of an 84% reduction in postpartum hemorrhage in the group of moms that used nipple stimulation in labor, compared to that that did not.

This is a really positive outcome. Especially since in general, most induction strategies have the opposite effect.

I personally think we have a lot to learn from other cultures about maternal and infant health here in the United States. And the practice of using nipple stimulation as part of the labor process may be worth exploring.

But, with some caution.

Are There Any Risks To Nipple Stimulation To Induce Labor?

Like everything in life, nipple stimulation is not perfect or without it’s risks. There is one published case study of a 37 year old mother having her third baby who had excessively long contractions that caused fetal distress after stimulating her nipples. Her baby was ok, but she did need a shot to stop the contraction and help the baby’s heart rate recover.

Also, though most studies found that Nipple Stimulation was safe for mothers and babies, most of the research was in low risk mothers. There was one study in the 90’s that allowed high risk mothers to participate that had 4 neonatal deaths. This study was stopped after the 4th death with only 16 mothers in the study actually ever attempting nipple stimulation.

Because these risks weren’t found in other studies, it’s easy to think that there was something dangerously wrong with what the researchers in that study were doing. There are times when the best thing for a baby is delivery via surgery so they can get immediate help.

Because of this, it is really important to make sure you are properly monitoring your own and your baby’s well being if choosing even simple interventions. Make decisions in partnership with a care provider you trust and respect and that trusts and respects you.

Can Nipple Stimulation Cause Preterm Birth?

If nipple stimulation causes a release of oxytocin, which causes contractions, which means labor, it’s easy to wonder about other things that might create a release of oxytocin. Is breastfeeding through pregnancy okay? What about sex, cuddling, getting. a massage and exercise? All things that can release oxytocin.

Well, you may notice that some of these things are on all the lists of common ways to get labor to start.

And if it’s so simple, create oxytocin to start labor – then how come so many inductions fail?

Well, creating oxytocin is only half of the story. Did you know the uterus muscle itself prepares for labor?

The Fascinating Story Of How Your Body Uses The Oxytocin You Create

The hormone oxytocin can only be used if it can latch onto an oxytocin receptor. And guess what, your uterus, the muscle that contracts during labor, has very few oxytocin receptors until about 38 weeks of pregnancy.

This means, no matter how much oxytocin you have, your uterus can’t do anything with it anyways and you are unlikely to go into labor before 38 weeks.

After 38 weeks, the number of oxytocin receptors increases gradually, until you’re in labor, when the number of oxytocin receptors increases over 300 times!!

Before 38 weeks of pregnancy, the body also makes special proteins and progesterone to block oxytocin from getting to receptors in the uterus.

The body is really fascinating. And though not every pregnancy progresses exactly the way we want, in most cases, the best thing to do is to trust that your body knows the process of birth and will do what it needs to do.

Nipple Stimulation To Induce Labor Conclusion

Nipple stimulation as a method to induce labor has gained attention for its potential to naturally kickstart the birthing process. While anecdotal evidence and some studies suggest its effectiveness, it is important to approach nipple stimulation with caution and under the guidance of a healthcare provider.

While nipple stimulation triggers the release of oxytocin, which can stimulate uterine contractions, its effectiveness may vary among individuals and what else your body is doing to prepare for labor.

We all have unique bodies and unique needs. Especially in pregnancy.

Nipple stimulation to induce labor is not a guaranteed method to induce labor. But, it clearly works for some moms whose bodies are already getting ready for labor.

Remember, nature has its own timeline for labor, and it’s important to trust your body’s natural process.

Ultimately, whether you choose to explore nipple stimulation or any other method to induce labor, it is vital to prioritize your health, well-being, and the safety of your baby. Trust in the expertise of your healthcare team and embrace the journey of childbirth with confidence and positivity.