What does “inducing labor” actually mean?

“Inducing labor” can mean a few different things medically – it’s always a way to get labor started before it begins naturally, but induction can be a hormonal process, can be done using hormones, by manipulating the amniotic sac, or even through nipple stimulation.

Why induce labor?

Even once a baby is viable, it’s not recommended to induce labor unless, for medical reasons, it’s safer for the baby to be delivered than to continue gestation until labor starts on its own. A few reasons why labor might be induced:

  • If you’re more than 42 weeks pregnant (or otherwise late enough that your healthcare provider suggests that it’s time)
  • Your water broke 24 to 48 hours ago but labor hasn’t started yet
  • Your uterus has an infection
  • The placenta has peeled away from the uterus
  • You have any of several underlying conditions that might cause complications, including high blood pressure and diabetes
  • The baby isn’t growing the way they should be, or isn’t getting enough nutrients

How labor is induced

  • Stripping the membranes: While it doesn’t technically induce labor, separating the amniotic sac, which surrounds the baby, from the uterus can speed up natural labor. Your doctor uses gloved fingers to reach past the cervix to separate the amniotic sac from the uterus.
  • Breaking your water: If your water doesn’t break on its own, your doctor may use a small plastic hook to rupture the amniotic sac and break your water, which can speed up labor. This method is generally only used if the cervix is already partially dilated, and can also be used to check the amniotic fluid for meconium, which can be a sign of fetal distress.
  • Using hormones: Pitocin and Syntocinon are both synthetic versions of the hormone Oxytocin, which makes the uterus contract, stimulating labor. The contractions caused by synthetic Oxytocin may be particularly strong.
  • Ripening the cervix: Most induction methods work best when the cervix has already started to thin (and often when doctors induce labor, more than one method is used). Prostaglandin, which helps to thin and soften the cervix, can be taken in a synthetic form, either as a pill or as a vaginal suppository.
  • Nipple stimulation: Some providers aren’t comfortable using nipple stimulation to induce labor, since it can cause very strong contractions, but the healthcare providers who do often use electric breast pumps.

Induced labor comes with its own concerns, including the fact that contractions from induced labor can be stronger and more painful from earlier in the process than naturally induced labor. There is also some evidence that induced labor can lead to an increased rate of unplanned C-sections. However, in the case of certain health concerns, it can often be the best and safest way to approach labor and delivery.

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