Like HowStuffWorks on Facebook!

How Childbirth Works

Inducing Labor
Sometimes labor doesn’t progress as it should.
Sometimes labor doesn’t progress as it should.
Mark Harmel/Taxi/Getty Images

­There are many potential complications during labor and delivery, but let's start with the progression of labor itself. In the last section, we looked at how labor is supposed to progress. But what if the expectant mother's body just isn't following those guidelines? Sometimes, the bag of water breaks but she doesn't have any contractions. Once the seal is broken, so to speak, the baby is open to infection, so labor has to be induced. Conditions such as toxemia and gestational diabetes may also warrant an induction to protect the health of both the mother and the baby.

Labor might also be induced when the woman is past her due date, because doctors want to prevent postmaturity of the placenta. Essentially, the placenta starts to wear out after 41 or 42 weeks of feeding the baby. A post-due date baby might also have his or her first bowel movement in the womb and inhale it, which can cause breathing problems because the meconium is sticky and tarlike.

Doctors may use one of three methods to bring on labor. If the amniotic sac hasn't yet broken, a hooked tool called an amniohook can break it manually. Sometimes this is enough to start the process, and the woman is placed on an IV drip containing Pitocin. This drug is just an artificial version of oxytocin, the hormone that causes contractions. Pitocin drips are also used if the sac has ruptured but labor hasn't progressed rapidly enough, or if the baby is starting to show signs of mild distress. Some women report stronger, more painful contractions when their labor is induced with Pitocin. Another method is the use of prostaglandin gel. This gel is applied to the cervix to help it dilate and simulate labor. It can take up to 12 hours for labor to begin.

Just as with pain relief, there are also natural methods used to induce labor. Sexual intercourse is a popular one. Sometimes the movement is enough to get things going. In addition, the man's semen contains prostaglandin, the same hormone applied in gel form to the cervix to induce labor. Certain foods, such as spicy food, Chinese or Italian have also been credited with inducing labor, but there's no real evidence to support it.

Midwives may also administer herbs such as black cohosh or goldenseal to induce or strengthen contractions, but these should only be used by someone who is knowledgeable and skilled in their use. There are also pressure points on the body that practitioners of acupressure and acupuncture can stimulate in an attempt to induce birth. Rubbing the nipples is known to stimulate release of oxytocin, so this can also induce labor.