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For centuries, pregnant women have sipped tea made from the leaves of a raspberry plant in preparation for birth and a faster, easier labour, and today’s moms-to-be are keeping up with that tradition. “Many people ask me about it,” says Carly Beaulieu, a midwife in Edmonton. “It’s definitely popular.”
We checked in with Beaulieu, as well as naturopathic doctor Erica Nikiforuk and OB/GYN Nirmala Chandrasekaran to get the lowdown on this often-used remedy.
Long used in Europe and North America, this traditional herbal remedy is said to strengthen and tone the uterus, improve the effectiveness of contractions and shorten labour. “It’s a very nutritious thing for your body that has lots of vitamins and minerals,” says Beaulieu. “It makes contractions more efficient and is good for your milk supply.”
No, says Beaulieu. It’s a misconception that raspberry leaf tea can actually start labour. “It’s just a tonic for the uterus,” she says. “It doesn’t have any effect on hormones or the activity of the uterus. You drink it purely for the nutrients.”
Beaulieu recommends drinking four to six cups of raspberry leaf tea a day in the third trimester. “I usually tell people to make a litre or two at a time and drink it with a bit of honey,” she says. The tea, which tastes more like black tea than fruit tea, can be purchased from health food stores in tea bags or as leaves.
Unfortunately, there is little scientific evidence to show that there are benefits to the tonic. “Its effects aren’t clearly supported in the medical literature,” says Nikiforuk. She points to one study, conducted in Australia in 1999, that showed that women who consumed raspberry leaf tea were less likely to deliver their babies pre- or post-term and less likely to need caesarean sections. “The problem with the study is that it was small, with just over 100 women,” she says. “We can't effectively draw conclusions from a study that size.” Another small Australian study found a shortening of the second stage of labour by about nine minutes.
It’s hard to say because, again, there has been very little scientific research. Chandrasekaran says there is evidence from one study that it doesn’t have any adverse effects on women or their babies, but it was a small trial. Nikiforuk doesn’t generally recommend it to her clients. She points to another Canadian study in animal models that showed varying effects: Sometimes the tea increased oxytocin, while other times it increased and then inhibited it. “The take-home message from the animal study is that it won’t work every time, and it's not always doing the same thing in every case,” she says. “It’s definitely something that should be discussed with the physician or midwife who’s overseeing the pregnancy.” While Beaulieu agrees that scientific evidence is lacking, thousands of years of use by different tribes and cultures is evidence enough for her.
While it would be nice to have a magic formula for an easy labour, it doesn’t exist. Chandrasekaran says she recommends that her patients stay active and healthy. While she acknowledges that raspberry leaf tea has been used for centuries, as a doctor, she says that she forms her opinions based on evidence. “There just aren’t a lot of studies on it,” she says. “I don’t tell patients not to take it, but I don’t advise it.”