Perhaps you’ve come to the end of your pregnancy and you’re really over the prelabor contractions.
Or maybe your care provider has suggested booking an induction date ‘just in case’.
Whatever the reason, you’re thinking about kicking labor off, and you might be wondering whether using castor oil is a good natural alternative.
Castor oil for induction of labor was once routinely prescribed by doctors and midwives. Today, very few care providers recommend its use.
Very little evidence exists to prove it’s safe and effective. And apart from that, it produces some not very nice side effects.
What is castor oil?
The castor plant (Ricinus communis) is the source of castor oil. It is commonly found in Southern Asia.
Castor oil is a vegetable oil pressed from the castor bean. Castor oil is a colorless to very pale yellow liquid with a distinctive taste and odor.
The therapeutic uses of castor oil have been recognized for over 4,000 years and were even described on ancient Egyptian papyrus scrolls. It was used to protect eyes from irritation and as an immunity-boosting elixir.
Castor oil is also found in lipsticks. Many women can tolerate the oil quite well on their lips but might get a reaction on their mouths if the castor oil converts to ricinoleic acid.
Soaps, coatings, lubricants, and other consumer items commonly contain castor oil. It contains many allergenic proteins, including ricin, which, according to science, is a potent and harmful plant toxin.
People sometimes use castor oil for medicinal purposes after these potentially harmful substances have been removed.
Castor oil to induce labor
Castor oil for induction was first recognized as a method way back in the 1800s. Components in the oil act on the intestinal wall, causing muscle spasms of the intestines, and then stimulate the bowel.
This in turn irritates the uterus, which sits quite close to the bowel, and stimulates contractions. This is why the oil was used for inducing labor.
Does castor oil start contractions?
The usual process for starting labor involves your baby and your body.
Your baby’s lungs send a chemical signal when they’re ready for the world outside the uterus.
Your body has been working towards this moment and is primed to start labor.
Read What Causes Labor To Start? for more information.
The uterus starts to contract, usually mildly at first, as it acts on the cervix. Over time the contractions begin to get stronger and more regular.
This is an amazing process where hormones and your body take over to bring your baby into the world.
Castor oil to induce labor but nothing happened
The contractions stimulated by castor oil aren’t necessarily the same contractions that lead to labor.
Your uterus is a muscle that contracts all the time. But the contractions don’t always act on the cervix.
You can end up with a condition known as irritable uterus. This means having contractions with no purpose, leading to exhaustion and frustration – not to mention the side effects (see below).
Castor oil to induce labor – how long does it take?
The research looking at how effective castor oil is in inducing labor has had mixed results.
In a small 2018 trial, conducted in Israel, 38 pregnant women between 40 and 42 weeks along were given about 2 ounces of castor oil to drink.
The second group of 43 pregnant women at the same stage were given about 2 ounces of sunflower oil.
The researchers found the women who had previously given birth and took castor oil went into labor faster than those in the sunflower oil group.
A small study in 2000 found almost 60% of the women who took castor oil were in active labor within 24 hours. By comparison, 4% of women who had no treatment went into labor in the same time frame
However, a study published in 2009 found no connection between the use of castor oil and induction of labor.
Over 600 women who were in week 40 or more of their pregnancy took part in this study. Castor oil had no impact on the time of birth, according to the research.
The study also found it didn’t seem to have any negative consequences.
In fact, researchers claimed women who take oral castor oil are no more likely to give birth than women who do not.
Castor oil pregnancy side effects
The big takeaway from the research is that castor oil is unlikely to do what it claims and unlikely to cause any harm. It has, however, some pretty unpleasant side effects:
- Contractions. After ingestion, the irritation from the bowel, in turn, irritates the uterus and can cause contractions. Although they might appear to be labor contractions, they’re most likely caused by intestinal discomfort rather than actual labor.
- Dehydration. Castor oil reduces the absorption of fluid and electrolytes, leading to dehydration. If your body becomes dehydrated in pregnancy, this can mean there is less fluid around your baby, or even cause labor to stall. Electrolyte depletion can require intravenous fluid replacement via a cannula introduced into your hand or arm. Be sure to read Can Dehydration Cause You To Go Into Labour? for more information.
- Diarrhea. Castor oil is a stimulant laxative, which causes the bowel to move, squeeze and contract harder than it usually would. This means when it is ingested, it stimulates the bowel to move more frequently, causing diarrhea. Diarrhea leads to dehydration, as previously discussed. For more information, please read Diarrhea During Pregnancy – What You Need To Know.
These aren’t the sort of side effects you want in late pregnancy, just before giving birth. You want to feel rested, and as hydrated and nourished as you can be, as you come close to the time of labor.
What are the risks of taking castor oil to induce labor?
Castor oil can cause irregular and painful contractions. This can lead to exhaustion, especially if you are focused on trying to make them into something more.
It could also cause your baby to become distressed and to pass meconium (a baby’s first stool).
Meconium itself isn’t harmful, but if your baby is distressed, he may gasp and inhale the meconium into his lungs.
Meconium aspiration can be serious and lead to complications after birth.
The stress of severe cramping can also be dangerous for your baby, potentially making his heart rate increase and making you feel even more stressed than you already were.
Increases in heart rate will also cause your healthcare provider to be concerned, which means you could be fast-tracking your way into a cascade of interventions.
Dehydration and depletion are also possible. This could mean your baby has less fluid surrounding him in the womb.
Lower levels of amniotic fluid can potentially lead to interventions if your care provider is concerned about your baby’s wellbeing.
It’s also important to note women who have had a c-section should never try to induce labor. This is because of the increased risk of uterine rupture.
Try other natural methods for inducing labor
There are many other natural ways to induce labor that is less risky than taking castor oil.
Some you might want to try are:
- Sexual intercourse
- Nipple stimulation
- Chiropractic treatment.
For more information, please read How To Bring On Labour Naturally – 11 Natural Methods.
Experiences of castor oil induction
Here is Linda’s experience of using castor oil for her first pregnancy:
‘My labor was not difficult, but it was longer than average. My midwife encouraged me to drink castor oil to speed up the process at 40 weeks of pregnancy.
‘Eager to escape the tedium of labor and to see my baby, I agreed to the castor oil. It was a huge mistake.
‘The stomach cramping was severe and compounded the pain from my contractions, which were now coming fast and furious. Back labor was very painful [in subsequent births], yes, but do-able; my castor oil to induce labor was a tortured hell.
‘Now I know that I was putting my baby at risk as well. I would have much preferred the tedium of a long labor’.
Other BellyBelly members said:
‘The question I would ask myself (and the reason I didn’t want to touch the castor oil) would be: ‘If I do go into labor, do I want to risk having the runs and/or feeling nauseous at the same time?
‘Don’t do it! My sister, when using castor oil, said she wanted to induce labor then had bad diarrhea and vomited…. She ended up being induced after going 8 days overdue’ — Rae
‘Using castor oil and then to induce labor with 2 of my 4 earth babies. I just got really really sick! I vomited and pooed all day and into the night. Oh, and no baby!’ — Deb
‘I tried using castor oil, and it’s bloody awful. Made me poo, gag and feel like spewing – but nothing else’ — Trish