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Inducing labor: What you should know

Instead of waiting for labor to start naturally, providers sometimes speed up the process. This is called labor induction. Inducing labor may sound more appealing as your pregnancy goes on. But it's typically not a choice you can make on your own.

Here are some things you should know about labor induction:

What is labor induction?

Very simply, inducing labor is when your provider uses medications or other methods to bring on labor. This stimulates contractions to help you have a vaginal birth.

Why is labor induced?

Certain situations may make continuing your pregnancy too hazardous for you or your baby. Among them:

  • You're overdue. This means your pregnancy has lasted more than 41 to 42 weeks.
  • Your membranes have ruptured. But even though your water has broken, labor hasn't begun.
  • There's a complication. Some conditions—such as pre-eclampsia, diabetes, an infection in your uterus or problems with the placenta—may make staying pregnant risky.
  • There are problems with the baby. Your baby may be growing too slowly or there may not be enough amniotic fluid.

Labor can sometimes be induced for nonmedical reasons—such as scheduling issues or the distance from your home to the hospital. These are called elective inductions. But they should never be done earlier than 39 weeks. That's because babies grow and develop even in the last stretch of pregnancy. And the brain, liver and lungs aren't fully matured before 39 weeks.

How is labor induced?

If you do need to be induced, your provider may use one or more of these methods:

  • Ripening the cervix. Your provider will use what's known as a Bishop score to rate how ready your cervix is for labor. A score of 6 or less means your cervix isn't ripe or soft enough. And your provider may advise medicines called prostaglandins to soften your cervix. Your cervix may also be widened with special dilators.
  • Membrane stripping. Your provider may use a gloved finger to separate your bag of waters (amniotic sac) from your uterus. This may cause your body to release naturally occurring prostaglandins, which can help start contractions.
  • Membrane rupturing. If your amniotic sac hasn't broken yet, your provider may rupture it to jump-start labor. It's done only when your cervix is dilated and thinned and your baby's head has moved down into the pelvis. Labor will probably start a few hours after your water breaks.
  • Oxytocin. This medicine can start or speed up labor. Contractions usually start within 30 minutes of receiving a dose.

Now for an important FYI: Your contractions may be stronger and more painful when labor is induced. The first stage of labor may also last longer.

What are the risks?

There are risks to inducing labor. For instance, if prostaglandins or oxytocin are used, your contractions may come too close together and lower your baby's heart rate. That's why your provider will carefully monitor your baby's heart rate when labor is induced and reduce the medicine you're getting—or stop it—if necessary.

Here are some additional risks:

  • You and your baby face a higher rate of infection.
  • Your uterus may tear and cause serious bleeding, though this is rare.
  • There may be problems with the umbilical cord.
  • The induction may not work—and you may need a C-section.

Can I start labor on my own?

You may have heard that you can bring on labor yourself—say, with a long walk, sex or spicy food. And while some women may swear by "natural" remedies like these, there's no proof they work.

One possible exception is nipple stimulation. Studies show it may give nature a nudge, but only when the cervix is ready for labor. Still, doctors don't recommend using any method to induce labor on your own.

More pregnancy news

Unless otherwise instructed by your provider, most women plan for a vaginal birth. But sometimes a C-section becomes necessary. Find out why your provider may advise a C-section.

Sources: American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists; March of Dimes

Reviewed 1/24/2023

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