Trying to Bring On Labor? Forget Sex and Spicy Foods. Only Nipple Stimulation Works.

In February, I hit my due date. 40 weeks! I thought. Let’s get this show on the road. Then… nothing. 40 weeks 1 day came and went. 40 weeks 2 days. 40 weeks 3 days…

My belly felt enormous, like an overripe melon. And in a not-so-funny coincidence, this was exactly how my favorite pregnancy app described my baby’s current size.

We needed to get this baby on schedule.

So my husband and I went out to eat spicy food. Thai, Indian, Mexican. The hotter the better.

And in return for a scorched tongue and numbed taste buds, all I ended up with was indigestion.

Then I tried walking. Lots of walking. I dragged my heavy, swollen body on long hike after long hike, completing them at a pace best described as a fast waddle.

In the end, I went almost a week late—barely avoiding a medical induction—and only after having my membranes swept twice.

At my 39 weeks appointment for my second pregnancy, my OB predicted that I would again go a week late. “That’s just how you bake them,” she chirped at me, while giving a matter of fact state-of-the-cervix rundown: I was not dilated or effaced, and my cervix was still posterior. The only thing I was, it seemed, was deeply disappointed.

But this time around I had done research on natural methods of inducing labor. That weekend, I pulled my breastpump out of the closet, sterilized my nipple shields, plopped them on, and sat down to pump for a couple of hours while watching a movie. Coincidentally or not—I’ll never really know—I went into labor two days later and delivered right on my due date.

In retrospect, though, by inducing labor in this way, I may have unwittingly taken a bigger risk with my baby’s health than I am completely comfortable with.

In my efforts to bring on labor, I am hardly alone. According to a recent survey, 50% of pregnant women report trying at least one natural method to bring on labor. Walking is the most popular approach (43%), followed by intercourse (29%), eating spicy foods (10.5%), and nipple stimulation (7.5%). The grand irony here is that nipple stimulation, the least common approach, is the only one with solid scientific support.

Using nipple stimulation to bring on labor has a long history. Midwives in the 18th and 19th centuries used the practice to speed up stalled laborsNipple stimulation brings on labor by releasing oxytocin, the hormone that causes contractions. Hospitals use a synthetic version of the same hormone, pitocin, to induce or augment a stalled labor.

A 2005 meta-analysis of six randomized control trials (the gold standard for medical studies) found that nipple stimulation increases the likelihood of labor. A total of 719 pregnant women at term were randomly assigned to stimulate their nipples for several hours or not. 37.8% went into labor within the 3 days following nipple stimulation, compared to 6.4% of the controls.

This difference, large in relative terms, was statistically significant. Still, two-thirds of women failed to go into labor even after nipple stimulation—underscoring that the method is no guarantee of labor.

(Note to the do-it-yourselfers or those fearful of accidentally inducing labor: Nipple stimulation in these studies did not consist of a few random suckles, squeezes, or tugs. It was a serious, concerted effort. Women were instructed to gently stimulate one nipple for 10–15 minutes before switching to the other side, and to continue alternating between breasts for an hour, 3 times a day.)

Using nipple stimulation for inducing labor would probably be a more widely known and recommended practice were there not concerns about its safety. One of the studies in the 2005 meta-analysis, conducted with high-risk women delivering at a hospital in India, was stopped early because of 4 fetal deaths: 3 in the nipple stimulation group, and 1 in the oxytocin induction group. (None of the other 5 studies reported any deaths.) Because of this, the meta-analysis concludes:

“Until safety issues have been fully evaluated it [nipple stimulation] should not be considered for use in a high-risk population”

It’s hard to know what to make of these safety concerns. The women in the Indian study were considered high risk because they had intrauterine growth retardation, high blood pressure, or were post-term. But the researchers failed to report which of these risk factors was associated with fetal death, or to provide any additional details about these deaths, other than to say one of fetuses lost did not appear to have any congenital abnormalities.

That nipple stimulation contributed to these deaths is certainly plausible. Nipple stimulation can result in uterine hyperstimulation—contractions that are too frequent or prolonged, and which can lead to fetal distress.* This is why women are told to alternate between breasts instead of stimulating both nipples simultaneously and to pause during contractions.

German study found uterine hyperstimulation occurred in 10% of women during nipple stimulation, and in 1% this was accompanied by reversible abnormalities in fetal heart rate patterns. Based on this, the authors caution against using nipple stimulation without medical supervision:

Due to the conflicting reports in the literature and because of the potential hazards involved, the use of nipple stimulation for the induction of uterine contractions can be advocated only in a controlled clinical setting. Its application without medical supervision, as propagated in the lay press, is definitely contraindicated.

In sum: nipple stimulation does increase the likelihood of going into labor. But because it can cause contractions that are too long or too intense, it is not recommended for women with high-risk pregnancies.

Below is a quick rundown on the evidence (or really, lack thereof) for other natural induction methods:

Walking. Walking is the most recommended and most commonly attempted method of inducing labor. It is true that in late pregnancy, walking seems to increase the frequency and strength of Braxton Hicks contractions. There is no evidence, though, that walking speeds the onset of labor.

Eating spicy foods. There is no evidence that spicy foods cause labor.

Acupuncture. review article of 3 randomized control trials, consisting of 212 women, found that acupuncture reduced the number of women who needed to a medical induction (33% versus 54%), but failed to find a difference in when the women went into labor. Because of the inconsistent results and methods (the type of acupuncture varied between studies), the reviewers felt no conclusions could be drawn without additional research. Since then, other randomized control trials have found no benefit of acupuncture for bringing on labor (see herehere, and here).

Having sex. As one researcher put it, intercourse would be a “safe, effective, and perhaps even fun” [italics mine] way to induce labor. Fun aside, it’s biologically plausible that sex would bring on labor. Semen contains prostaglandins, which are known to ripen the cervix. Orgasms promote the release of oxytocin and can therefore stimulate uterine contractions during late pregnancy. Foreplay involving nipple stimulation could also release oxytocin. A small observational study found that women who reported having sex after 39 weeks were much less likely to go post-term or need to be induced.

Sounds pretty good, right? Alas, the most recent, best-designed, and largest study to date, a randomized clinical trial conducted in Southeast Asia, failed to replicate these findings. Two hundred ten women were recruited from a prenatal clinic, where they had been scheduled for inductions. They were randomly assigned to be counselled by a physician to have sex or to receive standard counselling. The women kept daily diaries tracking when they had sex and whether they experienced an orgasm. Although women who were told to have sex to bring on labor were more likely to have sex before delivery (60% versus 40%), they did not differ in cervical ripeness or in their likelihood to go into labor on their own.

It’s possible that sex does bring on labor, but the Southeast Asian study was too small and therefore underpowered. A sample of 210 women is not large. Compounding this problem, a fair number of the controls still had sex, albeit at a lower rate than cases, watering down the comparison between the two groups.

Knowing this, in a separate analysis of the same data, the researchers compared all the women who reported having sex with the women who did not, regardless of whether they had been cases or controls. They still found no effect of intercourse. If anything, women who had sex during the study period went into labor later than women who refrained. An earlier but smaller clinical trial similarly found no benefit of sex.

In sum: sex late in pregnancy—after 39 weeks—does not appear to bring on labor. But it perhaps just might be fun.

Did you try any natural methods to induce labor? And do you think they worked?

Footnote

* The evidence on nipple stimulation and uterine hyperstimulation comes mainly from a series of studies conducted in the 1980s. These studies examined whether nipple stimulation was a viable alternative to pitocin for use in contraction stress tests. Constraction stress tests monitor fetal heart rate during contractions to ensure the fetus can safely withstand labor. The studies variously found no instances of hyperstimulation, hyperstimulation in 10% of women, and hyperstimulation in 12% of women. A final study, which also reported on fetal distress, found hyperstimulation with fetal heart rate changes in 2.9% of women using nipple stimulation, compared to 1% of women using pitocin.

Let’s Face It: Formula-Fed Babies Sleep Better

Breastfeeding is a major battleground of the modern mommy wars. In her widely discussed piece in The Atlantic, Hanna Rosin called breastfeeding the “new sucking sound”–replacing vacuuming as the task that shackles women to the house, promotes the unequal distribution of childcare and household duties, and prevents women from reaching the upper echelons of professional success. The benefits of breastfeeding have been oversold, she claims, and–just as significantly–the costs to women’s sleep, time, and career progress have been downplayed.

On the other side of the debate, the American Academy of Pediatrics states that the benefits for the infant in terms of reduced risk of infection, adult obesity, allergies, and asthma are so great that breastfeeding must be viewed as an “investment in your child’s future” rather than a “lifestyle choice.” Some lactation consultants fall into this camp too, needing to be reminded to suppress their impulse to sigh when yet another mother complains of exhaustion and lack of sleep, for fear they alienate her–and thus fail to convince her to keep breastfeeding.

On both sides, well-intentioned but overzealous advocates twist the evidence on breastfeeding, cherry-picking among studies to support their preexisting views.

This is especially true when it comes to one of breastfeeding’s major downsides: Disrupted sleep.

Consider the post, 5 Cool Things No One Ever Told You About Nighttime Breastfeeding, which claims that the number 1 coolest thing about nighttime breastfeeding is “breastfeeding moms actually get MORE sleep than their formula-feeding counterparts,” and concludes with the rhetorical question: “Did you ever think, when you hear your baby rouse at 2:00am, that they are actually giving you the gift of MORE sleep…?”

To which I would like to respond: No, never, not only because it does not square with my own experience, but also because the research on this topic is clear: breastfeeding moms, on average, get less sleep, not more.

Almost without exception, studies on formula feeding, breastfeeding, and sleep find that breastfed babies wake up more often than formula fed ones at night, and breastfeeding mothers therefore get LESS uninterrupted nighttime sleep.

Nighttime Wakings in Formula-Fed Versus Breastfed Babies

Continue reading Let’s Face It: Formula-Fed Babies Sleep Better

It’s (Probably) Safe to Sleep on Your Back While Pregnant

My third trimester in my second pregnancy was rough. The days were fine, but the nights were awful. I could not fall asleep. I was too uncomfortable. And as a second time mom, I was desperate. Months of sleep deprivation were my certain future. Pregnancy was supposed to be an opportunity to stock up on sleep before the newborn period.

The only remotely comfortable position was lying on my back, propped up with a couple of pillows. But several pregnancy websites and and my OBs had warned me against sleeping on my back during pregnancy.

More than anything, I wanted to disregard this advice. But I needed to know how big a risk, if any, I would be taking by sleeping on my back.

My OBs were not helpful in this regard. Within the same clinic, one OB told me to avoid lying on my back from 4 months on, another told me to avoid this position from 7 months on, and a third said not to worry until the last month of pregnancy. When asked, none of them could tell me the magnitude of the risk.

Eventually, I dug into the research myself. Once I did, I understood why the advice is confusing to mothers: the underlying research is a mess.

The rationale for this prohibition is simple enough: lying on one’s back can cause supine hypotensive syndrome, sometimes known as aortocaval compression syndrome.

A pregnant woman woman’s belly can compress the inferior vena cava, a large vein running under the right side of her uterus; and compression of the inferior vena cava can cause a drop in blood pressure. In rare cases, the drop in blood pressure is severe enough to reduce heart output, lower oxygen going to the brain, and cause fainting.

Although the drop in blood pressure is unlikely to harm the mother, the concern is that if a pregnant woman’s oxygen levels drop, her baby’s might too. Under normal circumstances, though, women typically become uncomfortable and change their position before their blood pressure takes a serious dip.

lateral versus supine

Supine hypotensive syndrome has been reported as early as the second trimester, but it is mainly a problem of late pregnancy, after 36 weeks or so.

Despite how scary this sounds (“I might be depriving my baby of oxygen without knowing it”), according to a recent research review, back sleeping is safe for the vast majority of pregnant women. The reviewers build a compelling case: First, only very small percentage of pregnant women experience low blood pressure when lying on their back. Even among those women, the changes in their blood pressure do not appear to affect the fetus. Studies have found no effects on fetal blood flow or on fetal well-being during non-stress tests.

Second, the symptoms of low blood pressure (dizziness, nausea, a rapid heartbeat) are easily recognizable. Women can figure out for themselves if lying on their back makes them uncomfortable, and avoid the practice if it does. In the reviewers words:

Advising women to sleep or lie exclusively on the left side is not practical and is irrelevant to the vast majority of patients. Instead, women should be told that a small minority of pregnant women feel faint when lying flat. Women can easily determine whether lying flat has this effect on them, and most will adopt a comfortable position that is likely to be a left supine position or variant thereof.

Third, previous research did not examine back sleeping. The research only addressed positioning women during surgery, when they are completely immobilized and unable to change their position.

This review was written in 2007. Its conclusions are clear and reassuring. Unfortunately, since its publication, two more recent studies muddy these waters a bit.

The first study was conducted at a maternity ward in Ghana. Two hundred twenty women who had recently given birth reported their sleep practices during pregnancy. Compared to women who slept in another position, the 21 women who reported either sleeping on their backs or “backs and sides”, had higher rates of NICU admissions (36.8% vs 15.2%) and stillbirths (15.8% vs 3.0%), and were more likely to have given birth to an underweight baby (36.8% vs 10.7%). Even when the researchers controlled for the mother’s age, number of children, gestational age, and pre-eclampsia, these differences remained statistically significant.

The second study was conducted in New Zealand. Researchers interviewed 155 women who experienced unexplained late stillbirths (after 28 weeks) about their sleep position both before pregnancy and in the last month, the last week, and the last night before their pregnancy ended. Their responses were compared to 301 control women, who were a similar number of weeks along but with ongoing pregnancies.

The researchers carefully controlled for several known risk factors for stillbirth: obesity, smoking, low socioeconomic status, maternal age, and number of prior children. Even so, sleeping on one’s back the night before corresponded to a higher risk of a late stillbirth compared to sleeping on one’s left side.

In fact, sleeping on one’s right side or in any other position than on the left side correlated with a higher risk of stillbirth.

Considered together, these two studies seem reason for caution, but not fear. They have a number of problems. Both were quite small, and both relied on women’s ability to recall what positions they slept in. And for the Ghana study, it’s unclear how the findings translate to women in a high income country.

Even assuming these findings hold up, the absolute risk appears to be very, very low. In the New Zealand Study, during its 3-year study period, the rate of late stillbirth was 3.09/1000. The researchers estimate that left side sleeping would lower the risk to 1.93/1000, whereas right side or back sleeping would raise it to 3.93/1000.

To put this risk further in perspective, the New Zealand study also found that going to the bathroom an average of once a night or less (as opposed to two or more times) was associated with an increased risk of a stillbirth. This magnitude of the increase was comparable to back sleeping. Yet, based on these data, no one has proposed that pregnant women should wake up more often to go to the bathroom.

So, what are we to make of these data? In my personal opinion, the research is not strong enough to support blanket warnings against back sleeping. Yes, there is a plausible mechanism for back sleeping causing problems. But the bulk of the evidence suggests that compression of the vena cava very rarely causes problems.

Depending on her risk tolerance and ability to sleep, one woman might look at these data and feel fine sleeping on her back. Another might choose to sleep exclusively on her left side. Both seem like reasonable decisions.

For me, sleeping with a pregnancy pillow, resting mostly but not completely on my back was the right choice. In part, this was because I wanted to be conservative: A tilt of 10 degrees (which you can obtain by propping up your right side with a pregnancy pillow or a regular pillow) has been shown to reduce the risk of low blood pressure.

For me, sleeping in with my right side slightly propped up felt pretty safe. But mostly, it felt comfortable.

Did you avoid lying on or sleeping on your back during pregnancy?

Weight Gain in the Second Trimester: A Sudden Bump Up Is Common — And No Reason to Panic

24 weeks into my first pregnancy, I was feeling smug. I had been eating right, continuing to exercise, and the last dregs of first trimester nausea and fatigue had faded. I was feeling good.

That is, until my OB took me down a few notches at my 6 month appointment.

She told me I had gained “too much weight”. She passed the chart. It was all there in black and white.

Although I had been on target to gain the “correct” amount of weight by the end of my pregnancy, I had gained a whopping 8 lbs in a month. I was now on a trajectory to gain over the upper limit of 35 pounds. She began what was clearly her set lecture. “Eat less bread. Eat only half of the sandwich…”

But as she spoke, my mind began to wander. I was pretty taken aback. I silently reviewed my recent eating habits. No, I did not think they had changed. Certainly not enough to cause a gain of 8 lbs in a month. And yes, I had been exercising my normal amount. If anything, I had become more active in my second trimester. My energy levels had gone up in the last couple of months, not down.

Convinced that I had done nothing dramatically different in the last month, I started to wonder whether we could accurately or reasonably expect a steady rate of weight gain. Maybe it’s normal to gain a lot of weight in the middle of pregnancy, and less towards the end. Maybe pregnancy weight gain looks more like a curve than a line. Continue reading Weight Gain in the Second Trimester: A Sudden Bump Up Is Common — And No Reason to Panic