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Induced labour

9-minute read

What is an induced labour?

Labour normally starts naturally any time between 37 and 42 weeks of pregnancy. The cervix softens and starts to open, you will get contractions, and your waters break.

In an induced labour, or induction, these labour processes are started artificially. It might involve mechanically opening your cervix, breaking your waters, or using medicine to start off your contractions — or a combination of these methods.

In Australia, about 1 in 3 women has an induced labour.

What are the differences between an induced and a natural labour?

An induced labour can be more painful than a natural labour. In natural labour, the contractions build up slowly, but in induced labour they can start more quickly and be stronger. Because the labour can be more painful, you are more likely to want some type of pain relief.

If your labour is induced, you are also more likely to need other interventions, such as the use of forceps or ventouse (vacuum) to assist with the birth of your baby. You will not be able to move around as much because the baby will be monitored more closely than during a natural labour.

You will only be offered induced labour if there is a risk to you or your baby's health. Your doctor might recommend induced labour if:

Not everyone can have an induced labour. It is not usually an option if you have had a caesarean section or major abdominal surgery before, if you have placenta praevia, or if your baby is breech or lying sideways.

Can I decide whether to have an induced labour?

If you are overdue, you might decide to wait and see if labour will start naturally. However, if there is a chance you or your baby are at risk of complications, you might need to consider induced labour before your due date.

When making your decision, discuss the risks and benefits with your doctor. Do not be afraid to ask lots of questions, such as:

You might need to consider several other health concerns. For example, there is a higher risk of stillbirth or other problems if your baby is not born before 42 weeks, and an increased risk of infection if your waters break more than 24 hours before labour starts.

What can I expect with an induced labour?

During the late stages of your pregnancy, your healthcare team will carry out regular checks on your health and your baby's heath. These checks help them decide whether it is better to induce labour or to keep the baby inside. Always tell your doctor or midwife if you notice your baby is moving less than normal.

If they decide it is medically necessary to induce labour, first your doctor or midwife will do an internal examination by feeling inside your vagina. They will feel your cervix to see if it is ready for labour. This examination will also help them decide on the best method for you.

It can take from a few hours to as long as 2 to 3 days to induce labour. It depends how your body responds to the treatment. It is likely to take longer if this is your first pregnancy or you are less than 37 weeks pregnant.

What options are there to induce labour?

There are different ways to induce labour. Your doctor or midwife will recommend the best method for you when they examine your cervix. You may need a combination of different strategies. You will need to provide written consent for the procedure.

Sweeping the membranes

During a vaginal examination, the midwife or doctor makes circular movements around your cervix with their finger. This action should release a hormone called prostaglandins. You do not need to be admitted to hospital for this procedure and it is often done in the doctor's room. This can be enough to get labour started, meaning you will not need any other methods.

Risks: This is a simple and easy procedure; however, it does not always work. It can be a bit uncomfortable, but it does not hurt.

Oxytocin

A synthetic version of the hormone oxytocin is given to you via a drip in your arm to start your contractions. When the contractions start, the amount of oxytocin is adjusted so you keep on having regular contractions until the baby is born. This whole process can take several hours.

Risks: Oxytocin can make contractions stronger, more frequent and more painful than in natural labour, so you are more likely to need pain relief. You will not be able to move around much because of the drip in your arm and you will also have a fetal monitor around your abdomen to monitor your baby.

Sometimes the contractions can come too quickly, which can affect the baby's heart rate. This can be controlled by slowing down the drip or giving you another medicine.

Artificial rupture of membranes ('breaking your waters')

Artificial rupture of membranes (ARM) is used when your waters do not break naturally. Your doctor or midwife inserts a small hook-like instrument through your vagina to make a hole in the membrane sac that is holding the amniotic fluid. This will increase the pressure of your baby's head on your cervix, which may be enough to get labour started. Many women will also need oxytocin to start their contractions.

Risks: ARM can be a bit uncomfortable but not painful. There is a small increased risk of a prolapsed umbilical cord, bleeding or infection.

Prostaglandins

A synthetic version of the hormone prostaglandins is inserted into your vagina to soften your cervix and prepare your body for labour. It can be in the form of a gel, which may be given in several doses (usually every 6 to 8 hours), or a pessary and tape (similar to a tampon), which slowly releases the hormone over 12 to 24 hours. You will need to lie down and stay in hospital after the prostaglandins is inserted. You may also then need ARM if your waters have not broken, or oxytocin to bring on the contractions.

Prostaglandins gel is often the preferred method of inducing labour since it is the closest to natural labour. Tell your midwife or doctor straight away if you start to experience painful, regular contractions 5 minutes apart for your first baby, or 10 minutes apart for subsequent babies, or if your waters break, because these are both signs that your labour is beginning.

Risks: Some women find their vagina is sore after the prostaglandin gel, or they might experience nausea, vomiting or diarrhoea. These side effects are rare and there is no evidence that induction using prostaglandin is any more painful than a natural labour.

Very rarely, the contractions can come too strongly, which can affect the baby's heart rate. This can be controlled by giving you another medicine or removing the pessary.

You need to let your doctor or midwife know immediately if you start bleeding, or if your baby is moving less, because this could be a sign that something is wrong.

Cervical ripening balloon catheter

A cervical ripening balloon catheter is a small tube attached to a balloon that is inserted into your cervix. The balloon is inflated with saline, which usually puts enough pressure on your cervix for it to open. It stays in place for up to 15 hours, and then you will be examined again.

Tell your midwife or doctor straight away if you start to experience painful, regular contractions 5 minutes apart for your first baby, or 10 minutes apart for subsequent babies, or if your waters break, because these are both signs that your labour is beginning.

You may also need ARM or oxytocin if you are using a cervical ripening balloon catheter.

Risks: Inserting the catheter can be a bit uncomfortable but not painful.

You also need to let your doctor or midwife know immediately if you start bleeding, or your baby is moving less, because this could be a sign that something is wrong.

Can I have pain relief during induced labour?

Induced labour is usually more painful than natural labour. Depending on the type of induction you are having, this could range from discomfort with the procedure or more intense and longer lasting contractions as a result of the medication you have been given. Women who have induced labour are more likely to ask for an epidural for relief.

Because inductions are almost always done in hospital, the full range of pain relief should be available to you. There is usually no restriction on the type of pain relief you can have if your labour is induced.

Are there any risks with inducing labour?

There are some increased risks if you have an induced labour. These include that:

What happens if the induction does not work?

Not all induction methods will work for everyone. Your doctor may try another method, or you might need to have a caesarean. Your doctor will discuss all of these options with you.

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