Can Nipple Stimulation Induce Labor?

The last few weeks of pregnancy can seem like they last forever, especially if you're overdue. You may have heard of different ways to jump-start your labor from friends or internet searches. One method that is often suggested is nipple stimulation. Unlike many home methods that claim to induce labor, nipple stimulation actually has evidence to back it up. 

If you go to the hospital to have labor induced, your doctor will likely do it with a synthetic hormone called Pitocin. Pitocin works by telling your body it's time to start contractions and labor. The natural version of this hormone is called oxytocin, and stimulating your nipples can produce it. 

Several studies have been done to determine if nipple stimulation can help induce labor. One study that was done in 2015 showed that during vaginal delivery, nipple stimulation led to a shorter first phase of birth, also called active labor. Women who performed nipple stimulation during labor had first phases that lasted an average of 3.8 hours compared to 6.8 hours for women who didn't perform nipple stimulation.

Another study of low-risk women who were 38 to 40 weeks pregnant measured oxytocin levels in the saliva of those who stimulated their nipples for 1 hour daily for three days. Of the 16 women studied, six went into labor within three days of starting nipple stimulation.

A third study of low-risk women in their first pregnancies showed that women who began massaging their breasts for 15 to 20 minutes three times a day delivered their babies at 39.2 weeks. Women who didn't massage their breasts delivered their babies at an average of 39.5 weeks. Women in the nipple stimulation group also had fewer cesarean deliveries.

Nipple stimulation may also reduce the risk of postpartum hemorrhage. A 2005 review of six trials found that 0.7% of the women who performed nipple stimulation had postpartum hemorrhages while 6% of the women who did no nipple stimulation had hemorrhages.

Though the evidence shows promising results for nipple stimulation to induce labor, it is only recommended for low-risk, full-term pregnancies. You should always consult with your healthcare provider before trying any method of inducing labor to be sure it's safe for you. 

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What's the Best Way to Do Nipple Stimulation?

If your doctor approves, there are several ways to stimulate your nipples. You can do it yourself, have a partner or friend do it for you, or use a breast pump. There's no set method or amount of time for doing nipple stimulation. Times in the studies varied from 15 minutes to an hour. Here is a gentle pattern you can begin with: 

  • Do 4 minutes of stimulation followed by 4 minutes of rest for 30 minutes total.
  • After that, rest for 30 minutes. 
  • If your contractions haven't increased after 2 hours, rest for an hour and then start over.

Is Nipple Stimulation Safe During Pregnancy?

Nipple stimulation has only been studied with low-risk pregnant women, so there is not enough data to determine if it is safe in high-risk pregnancies. While there have been no bad outcomes reported in any of the nipple-stimulation studies done, there also isn't enough evidence to say there are no dangers. 

Nipple stimulation only seems to work if your cervix is ripe and favorable for labor. In the 2005 review of six trials, there was no evidence of nipple stimulation causing uterine hyperstimulation, which is when the uterus contracts too frequently or for too long, which can interfere with the baby's blood supply. However, there have been several cases where women who performed nipple stimulation to induce contractions had problems with the baby's heart rate after the uterus contracted for too long or too frequently. This may be an issue because there is no way of controlling the amount of oxytocin released from nipple stimulation. Nipple stimulation appears to be safe but should only be done under a doctor's supervision. 

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Dan Brennan, MD on March 05, 2021

Sources

SOURCES:

BioMed Research International: "Breast Stimulation in Low-Risk Primigravidas at Term: Does It Aid in Spontaneous Onset of Labour and Vaginal Delivery? A Pilot Study."

Cleveland Clinic: "What Natural Ways to Induce Labor Actually Work?"

Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews: “Breast stimulation for cervical ripening and induction of labour.”

Journal of Midwifery & Women's Health: "Management of Protracted Active Labor with Nipple Stimulation: A Viable Tool for Midwives?"

Kathmandu University Medical Journal: “Uterine Tachysystole with Prolonged Deceleration Following Nipple Stimulation for Labor Augmentation.”

Lancaster Doulas: "Nipple Stimulation – A How To Guide."

PLOS One: "Effects of breast stimulation for spontaneous onset of labor on salivary oxytocin levels in low-risk pregnant women: A feasibility study." 

Worldviews on Evidence-Based Nursing: "The Effect of Uterine and Nipple Stimulation on Induction With Oxytocin and the Labor Process."

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