Speeding up childbirth with the help of drugs is scary for most parents, but inducing labor with Pitocin is a common way many doctors safely move the process of labor along. Pitocin is a synthetic form of oxytocin, a hormone known for its role in bonding, cuddling, and sex that plays a significant role in childbirth and lactation as well. Moms and dads can calm their concerns prior to the big day by learning more about what Pitocin is and what the side-effects and risks are.
What Is Pitocin?
“The best-case scenario is natural labor, but that’s not always a reality,” Dr. Daniel Roshan, a board-certified high-risk maternal-fetal medicine OBGYN and the founder of Rosh Maternal & Fetal Medicine, told Fatherly. About half of the time natural labor doesn’t stay its course, and when it doesn’t doctors rely on Pitocin to jump-start a stalled labor. “The last time I checked, the statistic was 40 to 50 percent of women deliver with the help of Pitocin.”
Pitocin is administered through an IV, and Dr. Roshan says it was such a game-changer when first discovered that doctors called it Vitamin P. “Prior to Pitocin, doctors would ask patients to stimulate their nipples to try and generate oxytocin to get the contractions going,” he says. “Other than that, there was nothing that could be done.”
Long, drawn-out labor, the kind that lasts days, is not only frustrating for everyone involved, it’s also dangerous for the baby and the mother. Dr. Roshan cites blood clots in the mother’s legs (which can lead to pulmonary embolism), due to being sedentary for so long, and infection as the biggest risks. And in many cases, Pitocin makes the difference between vaginal delivery and a cesarean section. Vincent du Vigneaud, the American biochemist who first synthesized oxytocin, won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1955 for his work.
Dr. Roshan says negative side-effects of Pitocin are extremely rare, as it’s a naturally occurring hormone that the mother’s body is expecting during delivery. The biggest problem with “Vitamin P” in the beginning was user error — doctors and nurses administering too much, creating contractions that came too fast and too hard, causing discomfort for the mother and potential fetal distress for the baby. Today’s standard is to mimic natural contractions, starting slowly with two milliunits, and gradually increasing. The nurse will then titrate the dosage as needed throughout the labor.
Pitocin is so safe in fact, that many hospitals, including Dr. Roshan’s in New York City, administer it as a matter of routine immediately following birth to help with the delivery of the placenta. Because the hormone makes the uterus contract, it speeds the afterbirth too. “It’s been incredibly helpful at decreasing blood loss following birth,” says Dr. Roshan.