Does Black Cohosh Really Work to Induce Labor?

As you approach the end of your pregnancy, you may begin to feel anxious about the end of pregnancy and consider ways of getting labor to kick in so you can meet your baby. This is a natural and nearly universal thought at the end of pregnancy, but it's not generally advisable. Black cohosh is one commonly recommended herbal supplement for inducing labor, but scientific evidence doesn't support its use.

Butterfly sitting on a black cohosh plant. (Image: Phil Robinson/iStock/Getty Images)

Labor

Most healthy pregnancies last between 38 and 42 weeks, with the average length of a pregnancy being right around 40 weeks. Technically, a fetus over 37 weeks of gestational age is considered full term from a medical perspective, and as a result, many women try to induce labor in late pregnancy. There are medications and medical techniques that can induce labor, but some midwives also recommend certain herbs, including black cohosh. Consult your medical practitioner before using black cohosh to induce labor.

Black Cohosh

Black cohosh supposedly acts as a uterine tonic, similar to red raspberry leaf tea. According to herbalists and alternative health care practitioners, it helps to prepare the uterus for contracting and stimulates labor. A May-June 1999 article in the "Journal of Nurse-Midwifery" reports that of surveyed nurse-midwives, 45 percent had used black cohosh to stimulate labor in their patients. The article does not note the success rate or safety of the preparation, however.

Safety and Efficacy

Unfortunately, while black cohosh is a relatively commonly-recommended herb for late pregnancy and labor induction, there are no scientific studies that show it's either safe or effective in bringing about labor. This is likely because it's medically difficult to conduct controlled scientific studies on pregnant women. The limited information available about black cohosh, however, suggests that it's not likely safe, notes the American Pregnancy Association. This may be because herbs that increase uterine contractions can lead to fetal distress and premature labor. In the 1999 "Journal of Nurse-Midwifery" article, 21 percent of practitioners reported complications such as too-strong uterine contractions, dangerous rapid delivery, nausea and vomiting when using herbs, including black cohosh.

Labor Induction

In general, it's best to avoid any technique meant to bring about labor unless you've reached the 40-week point in your pregnancy. The last few weeks of pregnancy contribute to fetal brain development, and cutting a pregnancy short by even a week can contribute to developmental delays, notes a article in the January 2011 issue of "The Wall Street Journal." If you are interested in trying to induce labor -- whether by using black cohosh or any other technique -- it's best to talk to your doctor first.

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