Can You Use Castor Oil to Induce Labor?

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Using castor oil to induce labor was once prescribed by many doctors and midwives, but this recommendation is not as common as it once was because of the lack of evidence for its efficacy. However, that doesn't mean that your mother or mother-in-law hasn't told you about it.

Castor oil is a vegetable oil derived from the castor bean. It has been used for a very long time to help ease constipation or even to induce vomiting when needed, much like we think of syrup of ipecac today.

The theory of labor induction with castor oil is that the castor oil acts as a stimulant to the bowels, which irritates the uterus and causes contractions.

Side Effects of Castor Oil

The side effects from castor oil can include:

There are practitioners who do not recommend castor oil because of potential side effects like dehydration (from loose stools and/or vomiting), fetal distress, and meconium in the baby. Never attempt a castor oil induction without working with your practitioner. It is always wise to talk to your midwife or doctor about any type of induction before using it.

Additionally, induction before your due date is not a good idea if there is no medical reason. Even then, a castor oil induction may not be the best option, as there are medical and alternative non-medical induction techniques.

When Does Castor Oil Induction Work?

While some mothers report feeling the stirring of their intestines within an hour or two of using castor oil to induce labor, others are not affected.

There are reports of having the baby within hours of a castor oil induction or the induction taking days, if it does work. Limited medical studies indicate data suggesting that labor may be more likely in the first 24 hours after ingesting castor oil, and they call into question the safety of the practice.

More research is needed.

Risks to Using Castor Oil to Induce Labor

The vast majority of studies that have been done looking at castor oil for induction found no significant difference in the type of birth, cesarean or vaginal, or the length of labor. They also did not find evidence of increased problems like infection, or meconium staining in the amniotic fluid. The biggest risk was maternal tolerance—how well the mothers tolerated the castor oil. One study found that every single mother who took castor oil experienced some nausea, with or without vomiting. Other reports include experiences of loose stools, which can lead to dehydration.

Alternatives to Castor Oil for Induction

When labor has yet to start and there is no medical reason to induce, the reasonable alternative recommendation is to do nothing, to simply wait for labor to begin on its own. If there is a medical need for an induction of labor, there are many options available, including:

The decision to use one of these methods or a combination of these methods should be between you and your practitioner.

Some alternatives may be more appealing to you or may be more likely to work in your specific case.

A Word From Verywell

In the end, the medical literature is very scant, particularly in terms of good, comprehensive research, so most of what you hear about castor oil is anecdotal. The Cochrane Review notes that there aren't increased complications noted—that doesn't prove that they aren't there, just that they were not observed in the small studies done. The known side effect of nausea adds to the discomfort of pregnancy and is likely not something you want.

The bottom line is, talk to your provider and ensure that you and your baby can and should safely use this method before even considering it or other self methods of induction.

Chances are your provider has a better option to offer, if needed.

Sources:

Boel ME, Lee SJ, Rijken MJ, Paw MK, Pimanpanarak M, Tan SO, Singhasivanon P, Nosten F, McGready R. Castor oil for induction of labour: not harmful, not helpful. Aust N Z J Obstet Gynaecol. 2009 Oct;49(5):499-503. doi: 10.1111/j.1479-828X.2009.01055.x.

Hall HG, McKenna LG, Griffiths DL. Complementary and alternative medicine for induction of labour. Women Birth. 2012 Sep;25(3):142-8. doi: 10.1016/j.wombi.2011.03.006. Epub 2011 Apr 27. Review.

Kelly AJ, Kavanagh J, Thomas J. Castor oil, bath and/or enema for cervical priming and induction of labour. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2013 Jul 24;(7):CD003099. doi: 10.1002/14651858.CD003099.pub2. Review.

Lim CE, Ng RW, Xu K. Non-hormonal methods for induction of labour. Curr Opin Obstet Gynecol. 2013 Dec;25(6):441-7. doi: 10.1097/GCO.0000000000000027. Review.

Mozurkewich EL, Chilimigras JL, Berman DR, Perni UC, Romero VC, King VJ, Keeton KL. Methods of induction of labour: a systematic review. BMC Pregnancy Childbirth. 2011 Oct 27;11:84. doi: 10.1186/1471-2393-11-84. Review.

Tunaru S, Althoff TF, Nüsing RM, Diener M, Offermanns S. Castor oil induces laxation and uterus contraction via ricinoleic acid activating prostaglandin EP3 receptors. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2012 Jun 5;109(23):9179-84. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1201627109. Epub 2012 May 2.

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