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Laboring Under Misconceptions

'Old wives' tales' for childbirth have no backing, but pregnant women believe them

TUESDAY, April 9, 2002 (HealthDayNews) -- If you are on the brink of delivering a baby, you might want to think twice before you try any of those "old wives' tales" -- whether it be a brisk walk in the park or some stimulating sex -- to bring on labor.

A new study in the April issue of the journal Birth finds many expectant mothers believe much of this age-old advice from friends and relatives, but experts say it often isn't true and it's potentially dangerous for some women.

Two out of three pregnant women surveyed, for instance, believed walking would help induce labor, while almost half believed sex would do the trick.

"Regardless of the walks of life, the ethnicities, the geographical backgrounds, these things just seemed to be so widespread," says Dr. Jonathan Schaffir, study author and a clinical assistant professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Ohio State University.

However, Hillary Grill, co-author of Dreaming For Two: The Hidden Emotional Life of Expectant Mothers and a New York City-based psychotherapist, isn't surprised by the findings. And she believes there may be value in the telling of old wives' tales.

"Women really want to be part of a tradition, and you want to believe in what your mother tells you and what your aunt tells you," she explains.

Schaffir asked 102 pregnant women visiting prenatal clinics in Columbus, Ohio, to fill out questionnaires about 10 common folk tips on inducing labor and whether they knew of or believed the information. The folk beliefs were: frequent walking; sexual intercourse; heavy exercise; laxatives like castor oil; nipple stimulation; spicy foods; fright; starvation; enemas, and herbal tea.

The most frequently heard bit of folk wisdom was that walking would spur labor: 84 percent of the women surveyed had heard this, though only 64 percent believed it would actually work.

The next most frequently heard recommendation, recognized by 74 percent of respondents, was that intercourse would induce labor. Only 46 percent believed this.

One-third of the women surveyed thought exercise could jump-start the birthing process.

Some women listed additional techniques they thought might induce labor, including housework, dancing, hot baths, Chinese food, warm gin, cranberry juice, dehydration and riding in a car over a bumpy road.

Although there's little evidence that any of these methods will expedite labor, experts say some have more of a scientific basis than others.

"Some did seem plausible," Schaffir says. "There is real research that's been done to support the use of nipple stimulation and castor oil. On the other hand, walking might also be plausible, but there's no evidence."

Nipple stimulation triggers the pituitary gland to secrete a hormone used in synthetic form to induce labor.

The argument for sex as a means to induce labor probably derives from the fact that semen contains prostaglandins, chemical substances that are also found in synthetic compounds administered to induce labor. In addition, it has been shown that the uterus contracts during female orgasm.

"I don't think it's clear that it's enough to stimulate labor, but if it causes contractions, it follows that perhaps it could stimulate labor," Schaffir says.

There's also a theory that an ingredient in castor oil may contribute to contractions.

"Although these things may be effective, we haven't reached the point that women should engage in them," Schaffir says. "We haven't worked out the recommended dosages or techniques, or figured out which women are more at risk for having bad outcomes."

The one solution to uncertainty is to simply ask your health-care provider. Keep in mind there's no shame in listening to or believing in old wives' tale, especially when your belly is huge, your back is killing you and you can't sleep.

"Women really would like to have something in their control to bring on labor," Schaffir. "A lot of women are very frustrated with the aches and pains that are naturally occurring."

What to Do: For more on inducing labor, check out BabyCenter or

SOURCES: Hillary Grill, M.S.W., co-author, Dreaming For Two: The Hidden Emotional Life of Expectant Mothers, and psychotherapist, New York City; Jonathan Schaffir, M.D., clinical assistant professor, obstetrics and gynecology, Ohio State University, Columbus; April 2002 Birth
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