As a mother-to-be approaches her due date, there's often a flood of emotions -- including anticipation and excitement about the upcoming birth. So when the due date nears, yet there are no signs of labor, some women look for ways to get things moving. Breast and nipple stimulation, such as the use of a breast pump, are popular drug-free strategies used to stimulate labor. While these may help, steps to induce labor should only be used if approved by your health care team.
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Why It Helps
Breast massage and nipple stimulation signal the hypothalamus to produce, and the pituitary gland to release, oxytocin. Among this hormone's many functions, oxytocin triggers the "let-down," or the release of milk into lactating breasts, and stimulates the uterus to contract -- which is why it can induce labor. Strategies to employ this labor induction method include gently massaging or applying warm compresses to the breasts, using the fingers to roll the nipple back and forth -- or using a breast pump. There are no formal recommendations on how to use the breast pump for this purpose, but common advice is to pump -- for the purpose of stimulation, not milk production -- for 15 minutes per side, resting then repeating until labor pains begin.
What the Research Says
While there are a variety of commonly recommended practices to induce labor, most do not have the research to back them up. But breast and nipple stimulation seems to help. A July 2005 "Cochrane Review" evaluated the results of 6 trials, and found that women who engaged in breast stimulation were significantly more likely to go into labor within 72 hours, compared to those who did nothing to stimulate labor. However, this review did not specifically look at the use of breast pumps. A more recent study of nearly 400 women, published in the October 2015 issue of "Worldviews on Evidence-Based Nursing," demonstrated that manual nipple stimulation resulted in shorter duration in each stage of labor and delivery compared to uterine stimulation or no treatment, although again, the use of breast pumps was not specifically studied.
Warnings and Precautions
Although breast stimulation may help induce labor, it has not been adequately studied, thus is not recommended for high risk pregnancies, or in women who are not yet full term. It's important to note that there are risks to inducing labor, including the potential need for a cesarean section. Before attempting any strategy geared at inducing labor, talk with your obstetrician, nurse midwife or other obstetrics provider to be sure it's safe for you and your baby.
Reviewed by Kay Peck, MPH RD