These Herbs Can Help You Get Through Labor
Pregnancy and birth are among the many areas of women's lives that have become increasingly medicalized and depersonalized. A woman birthing in the United States has a tremendous chance of having labor induced, a high likelihood of receiving pain medication in labor, and a one-in-three chance of a cesarean section. Each of these interventions—although of course, sometimes necessary and lifesaving—also carry the risk of "unintended consequences," which include, to name a few, a substantially higher rate of adverse medication reactions, hemorrhage, organ damage, infections, and dangerous blood clots above and beyond that for vaginal birth.
In fact, U.S. hospitals are now one of the riskiest places in the Western world for a woman to give birth. Most of us have heard our fair share of horror stories about long labors and challenging births, long before we've even become pregnant ourselves. Naturally, we want to do our best to prepare our bodies ahead of time to have the healthiest and easiest labor possible.
If you, like so many pregnant women, soon-to-be pregnant women, or someday moms, are freaking out at the thought of pushing a small cantaloupe-size head out of your vagina—while also wanting to do everything you can to avoid unnecessary medical procedures, including caesarean—it's important to do your homework ahead of time. With some forethought you can increase the odds that this upcoming passage into motherhood is as short, easy, empowering, and as safe as possible for yourself and your baby.
How to support a healthy labor through diet and lifestyle change.
Thirty-five years of practice initially as a homebirth midwife, and then as an M.D. specializing in women's health, including obstetrics—as well as being a momma of four—has shown me that labor and birth can be hard work but also a beautiful, powerful event. While there should be absolutely no judgment about what type of birth experience you prefer or ultimately require, it's worthwhile to consider what natural tools we have at our disposal to can help us avoid the speed bumps that often lead to preventable birth interventions (the most common being not going into labor within a reasonable amount of time after your due date, having a long labor, or needing pain medication).
Fortunately, our bodies are wise and know what they need to do to bring our babies into the world. That said, we can support the process first and foremost with:
- A healthy diet full of healthy fats, proteins, and complex carbohydrates
- Daily walking or other movement
- Doing regular yoga for flexibility and strength
- Getting educated about birth and what happens in the body
- Being around birth-positive women and care providers during pregnancy
- Doing the deep inner work of unlearning patriarchal beliefs about birth—particularly that it's inevitably a catastrophe waiting to happen
- Having a plan for working with and through labor's intense sensations
It might surprise you, but having the support of another woman in labor—whether it be a doula who is supportive of you and knows the tricks of the trade and how to protect your space if you're birthing in hospital or a midwife in a hospital or at home—has been shown to dramatically reduce the need for medications, forceps, and caesareans. Oftentimes, calling upon these resources leads to happier, healthier moms and babies at the end of the day.
Herbs to ease and support birth.
There's also some good science, and safety, red raspberry leaf and red dates for helping with labor. They are two of my go-to natural remedies for my pregnant patients, and I used them during pregnancy as well. Calling on these natural remedies can give you that little bit of extra assurance that you're doing everything possible to help your body get ready for birth.
1. Red raspberry leaf
Red raspberry leaf comes from the leaves of the plant that provides us with delicious raspberry fruits. It's been used for centuries in Europe and among North American native tribes as a mineral-rich tonic tea to support a healthy pregnancy and to "tone" the uterus, which helps women prepare for birth. It remains popular today, with about 63 percent of midwives in the United States recommending it.
Red raspberry (RRL) leaf is high in vitamins C, E, A, and B and has significant amounts of major minerals like magnesium, potassium, calcium, and phosphorus that not only nourish the uterus but provide the minerals it needs to contract and relax—which is exactly the combination required for labor to work effectively and for the powerful muscles of your uterus to push your baby out. It's also rich in a natural plant constituent called fragarine, which is thought to also tonify and stimulate uterine muscle.
While RRL doesn't actually appear to be very effective at stimulating or shortening labor, research has found that drinking RRL tea or taking capsules can have a number of benefits. The results of a double-blind, randomized, placebo-controlled trial consisting of 192 low-risk, first-time moms found that RRL tablets, taken daily starting at 32 weeks' pregnancy until labor, reduced the rate of forceps deliveries. Another study found that raspberry leaf was associated with:
- Decreased likelihood of preterm labor
- Decreased likelihood of going too far past your due date
- Decreased need for having your bag of waters artificially ruptured to stimulate labor
- Lower overall rates of caesarean section, forceps delivery, and vacuum extraction
Are there any risks? While RRL has been used for a long time without any obvious downsides, two studies on rats did find some curious results that I want you to at least be aware of. In one study, RRL tea and capsules at typical doses were found to have the effect of stimulating uterine contractions—as we'd expect them to do to support healthy labor. However, in very high concentrations, contractions were inhibited, which is quite the opposite effect we'd be looking for. In another study, this one also conducted on rats, the authors observed that pregnancy seemed to last longer, and there were some changes in the rat offspring (they appeared to go into puberty early). Now, these are not problems that have been observed in humans, in spite of centuries of use, and the rat mamas in both studies consumed RRL products in doses far higher than humans would normally ingest. So while we should be aware of these findings, the bottom line is that there are a lot of differences between rats and humans.
When should you start taking RRL? As a pregnant midwife-herbal-momma, I drank RRL daily starting about halfway into my pregnancy, always carrying my Mason jar of tea with me. This was in the 1980s (long before the days of green juice!), so I got some strange looks when I was out and about having a swig! While some recommend starting it in the first trimester, I generally recommend avoiding it then because, while there are no studies associating it with pregnancy loss, there is some evidence that it increases uterine contractility. Herbalists and midwives consider raspberry leaf to be a gentle, effective, nutritious herb to use in the second and third trimesters—and I concur.
How much should you take? One to two cups of tea daily is known to be safe during pregnancy, and several studies have now shown that taking one to two cups regularly in the last trimester can make labor easier. You can also use capsules or tablets (1.5 to 5 grams daily) since RRL doesn't have the most pleasant taste when taken as a tea by itself. In my practice, I generally recommend mixing RRL in with some spearmint and rose hips for a delicious tea that can be taken daily throughout the second and third trimesters.
Mama Aviva's Pregnancy Tea
Many of the popular pregnancy teas you see on the market came from one of my original blends, published in my now classic book The Natural Pregnancy Book. This is a simple, delicious version you can drink hot or iced. For use as a "Labor Day" tea, I actually use 4 tablespoons of RRL and make the whole thing in a quart of water for sipping throughout labor and after the baby is born. You can even make ice pops to enjoy during labor.
● 1 tablespoon red raspberry leaf
● 2 teaspoons spearmint leaf
● 1 teaspoon rose hips
1. Place into a tea bag or teapot strainer.
2. Steep in 8 ounces of boiling water for 20 minutes. Strain and drink 1 to 2 cups daily.
3. Will keep in the fridge for 2 days.
Make sure any herbal tea products you purchase contain actual RRL because raspberry-flavored teas don't have any of the RRL benefits. Mountain Rose Herbs is a great online source for purchasing bulk organic herbs.
2. Red dates
Date fruits are perhaps one of the most ancient "sweets." Delicious, they are also nutrient-rich, loaded with fats, proteins, carbohydrates, and a variety of vitamins, minerals, and fiber. It also turns out that they are a common remedy for preparing for labor in certain parts of the world. In one study 919 Iranian women were asked what natural remedies they used in pregnancy for labor preparation, and 26 percent said they ate red dates as part of their preparation at the end of pregnancy1. Talk about food as medicine! While we still don't fully know how dates work, it appears they might have an impact on the oxytocin we need for labor to start and progress effectively and on time.
Three scientific studies have shown that red dates are associated with:
● Increased cervical "ripening"
● Less need for labor induction
● Greater likelihood of being more dilated when arriving at the hospital
● Less need for Pitocin to stimulate labor and greater likelihood of induction working if it's needed
A 2011 study found that women who ate six dates a day for the four weeks leading up to their due date were significantly more dilated2 when they got to the hospital, had a significantly higher rate of intact membranes, were significantly more likely to go into labor spontaneously (i.e., without induction), and had nearly half the length of the first stage of labor. A 2014 study found that women who ate dates from 37 weeks on had greater cervical dilation at admission and higher success rates of labor induction when needed. Another study found that eating dates in pregnancy led to less bleeding immediately after birth.
Are there any risks? Dates are delicious, and unfortunately, they are also high in sugar—which means there are concerns about their effects on insulin levels and blood sugar balance. Studies have looked at blood sugar levels in women eating dates this way and have found no significant negative changes; however, this has not been studied in women with diabetes, so if you do have gestational, type 2, or type 1 diabetes, do discuss their use with your midwife or doctor.
How much do you take? Based on the studies available to reference, it's recommended that you eat about 70 to 80 grams (about 2.5 ounces) of red dates daily starting at about 36 or 37 weeks of pregnancy and continuing until labor begins. The 2007 study I mentioned specifies deglet noor dates and suggests that about six to eight per day is the magic number. Medjool dates are likely fine as well but typically are twice as large, so keep it to three to four of those per day.
A word about intention and surrender.
Each baby and momma have their own story that they create together—and we don't have total control over how it all happens in the end. Our bodies are beautifully wise and know how to birth our babies. In fact, surrender and openness can go a long way toward helping us open for birth. Complex cultural factors and changes in how we live in modern times, along with overmedicalization, mean that we do need to put some intention and conscious effort into creating the birthing experience we hope for. And natural remedies, along with a healthy pregnancy and doula or midwife support (or both), can make this all the more likely.
Aviva Romm, M.D. is both a midwife and an Internal Medicine and Board Certified Family Physician with specialties in Integrative Gynecology, Obstetric and Pediatrics, with a focus on women’s endocrinology. She’s also a world renown herbalist, and author of the textbook, Botanical Medicines for Women’s Health, as well as 7 other books, including The Adrenal Thyroid Revolution. A practitioner, teacher, activist and advocate of both environmental health and women’s reproductive rights and health, she has been bridging the best of traditional medicine, total health ecology, and good science for over three decades. She practices medicine in both NY and MA, and lives in the Berkshires of Western MA.