Herbs for a home birth

Whoops – I totally flaked on last month’s article. You could say I had slightly underestimated the workload involved in looking after a newborn baby.

So while I’ve spent the last two months up to my elbows in washable nappies and electric breast pumps, I’ve also been half-thinking about what to write about when I ever find the time.

I’ve settled on ‘herbs for a home birth’ since the subject is fresh in my mind and will at least keep me awake long enough to finish the article!

Why home birth?
Every woman should choose the type of birth that most suits her and her needs, and the herbs below can be equally used to prepare for a hospital birth.

I opted for a home birth because I met the amazing midwife Els Bellemans who inspired and supported me in my choice, and because I had also heard that a hospitable birth doesn’t always mean a safer birth (1).

Below are the five herbs I relied on most before, during and after my labour.

Red raspberry leaf
The leaves of the raspberry plant have been used for centuries as a mineral-rich tonic tea to “tone” the uterus in preparation for childbirth.

They contain minerals like magnesium, potassium, calcium and phosphorus that nourish the uterus and enable it to contract and relax effectively – they’re also rich in a plant chemical called fragarine which is thought to stimulate uterine muscle.

In one study, raspberry leaf was found to decrease the likelihood of premature labour as well as reduce the chance of going too far past your due date (2). It also lowered rates of interventions like caesareans and forceps delivery.

Several studies have also shown that taking 1-2 cups of raspberry leaf tea a day in the third trimester can make labour easier. You can also drink it during active labour – I just didn’t fancy it by that stage and was too busy crawling around the living room counting floor tiles.

Delicious dates are chock full of nutrition – they contain fats, proteins, carbohydrates, a range of vitamins, minerals, and fibre. In the Middle East, they are a common remedy for preparing for labour, and many recent scientific studies support their traditional use.

Dates are associated with better cervical “ripening”, increased cervical dilation on admission to hospital, reduced rates of induction, and a greater likelihood of induction working if it’s needed.

One 2011 study found that eating six dates a day nearly halved the length of the first stage of labour – that is, up until the cervix is fully dilated (3). The hardest part!

As well as being one of the yummiest ways to prepare for labour, eating six dates a day (or four of the Medjool variety) may be the best way to maximise your chances of a quick and easy birth.

Hay flowers (Flores graminis)
From 37 weeks on, at the request of my midwife, I did a sitz bath/vaginal steam of these flowers twice a week. I had never heard of this herb, but apparently it is traditionally used in Germany to help ripen the cervix, enabling it to dilate quicker.

Whether it was this herb, the dates or the combination of the two, my labour progressed very well – so something must have worked!

Preparing a vaginal steam is easy – just put a few handfuls of the herb in a big glass/ceramic bowl of just boiled water and place the bowl inside the toilet bowl. Then sit on the toilet with a big towel covering your legs. It’s actually very relaxing!

This is the only herb I used during active labour. As the name implies, it is traditionally used as a nerve tonic for giving strength and courage to those going through strenuous times, such as new motherhood or indeed childbirth.

A few drops of the tincture on the tongue in between contractions really helped me remain calm and focussed. I think of motherwort as the strong, reliable matriarch who comforts and nurtures – it was my female ally until my midwife arrived.

Shepherd’s Purse
This herb is an extremely quick and effective anti-haemorrhagic, and is traditionally used to control heavy menstruation.

I took a few swigs of the tincture after my baby had been born, just to prevent any post-partum haemorrhages or too much blood loss from stitches. A handy herb to have at hand just in case.

1) Janssen et al. (2009) Outcomes of planned home birth with registered midwife versus planned hospital birth with midwife or physician. CMAJ. 181(6-7): 377–383.
2) Parsons et al. (1999) Raspberry leaf and its effect on labour: safety and efficacy. Aust Coll Midwives Inc J. 12(3):20-5.
3) Al-Kuran et al. (2011) The effect of late pregnancy consumption of date fruit on labour and delivery. J Obstet Gynaecol. 31(1):29-31.

By Poppy Burr

Poppy is a degree-qualified medical herbalist practicing from Aljezur and Praia da Luz. She offers holistic consultations and personalised treatment plans using plant-based medicine.
More info at poppytheherbalist.com, or call on 969 091 683.