The nipple effect

“And so,” said my extremely pregnant friend while ordering lunch, “we’ve talked about it, and we’re going for nipple stimulation.” Nipples do not normally come up over coffee. I must have looked alarmed. No, no, my friend insisted, this was an evidence-based endeavour to bring on labour. She thought that I would approve. And what’s more, she said, lowering her voice conspiratorially, this method was free, easy and – quite possibly – fun. Gleefully, she ordered a large helping of curry to be washed down with raspberry tea.

So I had to go and look it up. And indeed, there is a reasonable amount of research showing that gentle breast stimulation, while not guaranteed to induce labour, does seem to have a better chance of beckoning baby out than no stimulation at all. The woman has to be at the right point in pregnancy for it to work. Also, more research on safety has been recommended – and no one, of course, should be trying to induce birth unless their midwife or doctor agrees. In any case, this method is not for the easily bored. Some studies suggest that between one-and-a-half and three hours of such stimulation a day are required to produce the desired effect.

But when it comes to the supposed methods women can use to induce labour, old wives tell many tall tales. Having sex is the most mentioned and near-mythical birth inducer. But there is not a lot of evidence to tell us whether the theory, which hinges on the labour-inducing effects of the prostaglandins in semen, is sound.

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