Is it Safe to Breast Pump to Induce Labor?

If you're close to the end of your pregnancy, you've probably heard a lot of home methods for inducing labor. Nipple stimulation with a breast pump is often suggested as a method of inducing labor. Yet, you may be wondering if this is a safe and effective method to jump-start your labor. 

Nipple stimulation has only been studied in low-risk women, so there is no data to determine if it's safe in high-risk pregnancies. There were no bad outcomes reported in any of the studies, however, there isn't enough evidence to say that there are no risks. 

Nipple stimulation only seems to work if you are ready to go into labor, that is, if your cervix is ripe. In a review of 6 trials, there was no evidence of nipple stimulation causing uterine hyperstimulation, which is when your uterus cramps too hard or for too long. Uterine stimulation can cause problems with your baby's blood supply. There have been case reports of women who performed nipple stimulation to induce labor who had problems with uterine hyperstimulation or the baby's heart rate. This could be because there is no way of controlling the amount of oxytocin that is released through nipple stimulation. 

Nipple stimulation appears to be safe when done under a doctor's supervision. Before you do anything to induce labor at home, you should discuss it with your healthcare provider. 

Does Breast Pumping Work to Induce Labor?

Breast pumping, when used for inducing labor, works by stimulating your nipples. Stimulating your nipples releases oxytocin. Doctors use a synthetic version of oxytocin, called Pitocin, to induce labor. Oxytocin sends signals to your body to tell it to start contractions. There are some studies that show nipple stimulation, either with a pump or manually, can help induce labor. These studies have all been done on women who were healthy and had low-risk pregnancies. 

One trial studied women who were 38 to 40 weeks pregnant. There were 16 women in the study. They stimulated their nipples for 1 hour daily for 3 days. Within 3 days of starting the nipple stimulation, 6 of the women went into labor. They all had higher oxytocin levels after 3 days of nipple stimulation.

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Another study showed that women who performed nipple stimulation had a shorter first phase of birth, called active labor. Their first phase of labor lasted an average of 3.8 hours. The women who didn't perform nipple stimulation had first phases of labor that lasted 6.8 hours on average.  

A study of women in their first pregnancies showed that women who massaged their breasts for 15 to 20 minutes daily 3 times a day starting when they were 36 to 38 weeks pregnant delivered their babies at 39.2 weeks on average. Women who didn't do the breast massage delivered at 39.5 weeks on average. The women in the group who did the breast massage had fewer cesarean deliveries as well.

A 2005 review of 6 trials showed that nipple stimulation may reduce the occurrence of postpartum hemorrhage. Of the women who did nipple stimulation, 0.7% had postpartum hemorrhages while 6% of women who did not do nipple stimulation had hemorrhages. 

How to Use a Breast Pump to Induce Labor

There is no set method for using a breast pump to induce labor. The times in the studies varied from 15 minutes to 1 hour. If your doctor approves, this is one method that doulas recommend: 

  • Do 4 minutes of pumping followed by 4 minutes of rest for a total of 30 minutes. 
  • Rest for 30 minutes.
  • Repeat for a total of 2 hours or until contractions start.
  • If your contractions haven't increased in 2 hours, rest for an hour then start over. 

Other Considerations

Inducing labor isn't appropriate for everyone. It may not be a good option for you if:

  • You have placenta previa, where your placenta is blocking your cervix.
  • Your baby is not head down.
  • You had a previous C-section with a classical incision or you had major uterine surgery.
  • You have a genital herpes infection that is active.
  • You have uterine cord prolapse, which is when the umbilical cord slips into the vaginal canal before delivery.
WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Dan Brennan, MD on March 04, 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?"

Evidenced Based Birth: "Evidence on Acupressure, Acupuncture and Breast Stimulation."

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

Mayo Clinic: "Labor Induction."

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

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

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