Can Nipple Stimulation Be Used to Induce Labor?

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When a pregnant person reaches their due date, or surpasses it, they are often willing to try whatever they can to get the baby out. In one study, 50% of the postpartum participants indicated they tried non-prescribed methods in an attempt to induce labor.

Methodical nipple stimulation is thought to have the potential to induce labor naturally in people whose bodies are ready to give birth.

A cropped photo showing the torso of a person holding breast pumps to each of their breasts.

blanscape / Getty Images

What Is Nipple Stimulation?

In pregnancy terms, nipple stimulation involves manually massaging the nipples, using a breast pump, or having another person (a nursing child or a partner) suck on the nipples to stimulate them.

Nipple stimulation is one of several non-medical ways full-term pregnant people turn to in an effort to start the labor process.

How Does It Work?

Nipple stimulation increases levels of the hormone oxytocin. Oxytocin is produced in a part of the brain called the hypothalamus and is secreted by the pituitary gland.

Sometimes referred to as the "love hormone", oxytocin is released when people have physical contact with other people. It also plays a role in:

  • Childbirth
  • Breastfeeding
  • Bonding between parent and child

Oxytocin stimulates the uterus to contract and begin labor. Oxytocin also increases the production of hormones called prostaglandins, which further increases contractions.

The synthetic version of oxytocin, Pitocin, is frequently administered to pregnant people to induce or help progress the labor process.

The increase in oxytocin from nipple stimulation can cause contractions that may kick start labor if the pregnant person's body is prepared to give birth.

Why Induce Labor?

Medical induction of labor is usually done when there is a need for it but can be done electively in certain situations. This may include:

  • The pregnancy is past the due date
  • Water has broken, but labor/contractions have not started
  • The pregnant person has risk factors such as high blood pressure or gestational diabetes
  • There are concerns with the baby's growth
  • There are concerns with the pregnancy such as low amniotic fluid, infection, or problems with the placenta

Inductions for these purposes are performed by healthcare professionals and usually involve medication or medical procedures.

In some cases, such as a pregnancy that is past due date but is not yet post term, trying non-medical ways to induce labor such as nipple stimulation may be recommended by the healthcare provider before doing a medical induction.

Is Nipple Stimulation Effective For Inducing Labor?

There isn't a definitive answer as to whether or not nipple stimulation is effective for inducing labor. There aren't a lot of studies on the subject, and the ones that do exist have low sample sizes, are not extensive, and are out of date.

It is also difficult to measure the effectiveness of natural induction methods because they are performed when a person is full-term and they may have given birth whether or not they had tried to start labor using these methods.

What Do the Studies Say?

A 2015 study found that nipple stimulation appeared to shorten the length of labor and decrease the instances of cesarean sections. The study involved 390 pregnant participants and divided the participants into three groups:

  • Nipple stimulation
  • Uterine stimulation
  • No stimulation

Despite inconclusive evidence, many healthcare providers recommend it as an option for their clients who are full-term.

A study of 350 registered midwives in British Columbia and Ontario Canada found that 96% of those surveyed had advised clients to use nipple stimulation as a way of releasing the hormone oxytocin, and 80% believed nipple stimulation to be effective. Ninety-two percent of the respondents named labor augmentation as their reason for suggesting nipple stimulation.

Likelihood of Success

Most healthcare providers agree that nipple stimulation only has the potential to be effective if the pregnant person's body is ready to give birth. Indications of this include:

  • The cervix is favorable: Meaning that it is beginning to soften, thin, and open.
  • The Bishop's Score is eight or higher: A tool used to predict how soon a person is likely to go into labor based on measures found during a pelvic examination.
  • Braxton Hicks contractions: Practice contractions, not labor contractions.
  • The baby "drops": Moves down lower into the pelvic cavity.
  • Show/Bloody show: An increase in vaginal discharge, losing the mucus plug, sometimes brownish or pinkish.

Is Nipple Stimulation Safe?

During Pregnancy

During a healthy, uncomplicated pregnancy, nipple stimulation is unlikely to cause premature labor or miscarriage. In fact, many people choose to breastfeed another child while pregnant.

While oxytocin is released with breast stimulation, in an uncomplicated pregnancy, the uterus only becomes sensitive to it when close to labor.

Breast or nipple stimulation is not advised during pregnancy if:

  • The pregnant person is at risk of preterm labor or has a high-risk pregnancy
  • There have been complications in the pregnancy including (but not limited to) pre-eclampsia, high blood pressure, or gestational diabetes
  • A healthcare provider advises against it

For Labor Induction

Using nipple stimulation to try to induce labor in a full-term, healthy pregnancy is generally considered safe.

There is, however, a possible risk of uterine hyperstimulation (when contractions come too close together), which could cause fetal distress.

This risk is low with nipple stimulation and seen more often in medical inductions, but because of the potential for fetal distress, many experts recommend doing nipple stimulation under the supervision of a healthcare provider who can monitor the baby and parent.

Before trying nipple stimulation to induce labor, make sure:

  • You are full-term (at least 39 weeks, but 40 is preferred)
  • You do not have any conditions that would make natural induction unsafe
  • Your baby is head down
  • You do not have pregnancy complications such as placenta previa or uterine cord prolapse
  • You have spoken with and received approval from your healthcare provider

No studies have been performed on the safety or efficacy of nipple stimulation to induce labor in people with high-risk pregnancies. Always check with a healthcare provider before trying any method of labor induction.

When to Call a Healthcare Provider

Call your healthcare provider or go to the hospital if you experience any of the following either before, during, or after trying natural induction methods:

  • A change or reduction in the baby's movement (seek immediate medical attention)
  • Bleeding that is enough to need the use of a pad, and/or happens before full term
  • Water breaking or leaking
  • You go into labor
  • You are showing signs of uterine hyperstimulation
  • You have any concerns

How to Perform Nipple Stimulation to Try to Induce Labor

There are a few different ways to do nipple stimulation with the intent of labor induction. The goal is to mimic a nursing baby.

Manually

This technique is similar to hand-expressing breast milk when breastfeeding.

  1. Hold your breast with your thumb and index finger around the areola (the darker area around the nipple)
  2. Push in a little bit
  3. Squeeze/apply pressure and pull out

Breast Pump

Similar to manual nipple stimulation, a breast pump mimics a nursing baby and can help with the release of oxytocin.

Pumping may extract colostrum from the breast—this is not a concern.

How Much Stimulation Is Recommended?

There is no universally agreed-upon pattern for nipple stimulation, but one pattern that is recommended for either manual stimulation or pumping is:

  1. 4 Minutes of stimulation
  2. 4 minutes of rest
  3. Repeat for 30 minutes
  4. Then 30 minutes of rest

If contractions do not start or increase after two hours, rest for an hour and try again.

Nipple Play

While it doesn't mimic a suckling baby, erotic nipple play (licking, sucking, fondling, etc.) can also stimulate the release of oxytocin. It's also a nice way to connect with your partner.

Breastfeeding

Instead of mimicking a nursing baby, you can try really breastfeeding. This is usually done by parents who are already nursing another child.

A Word From Verywell

The jury is still out on whether or not nipple stimulation is an effective way to induce labor. While some suggest there may be some benefits to nipple stimulation, the studies are sparse and include small sample sizes, outdated information, and other issues that make it difficult to make concrete conclusions.

In short, nipple stimulation may or may not help, but it probably won't hurt in low-risk, full-term pregnancies.

Before trying nipple stimulation—or any form of natural or at-home labor induction methods — consult with a healthcare professional.

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Article Sources
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