Pitocin: How Does It Work And What Does It Do?

Everything you need to know about Pitocin, the common birth drug.

Pitocin is a synthetic version of oxytocin, a hormone naturally produced by the body that controls key aspects of reproduction, most notably childbirth and lactation. Men have oxytocin too, and it’s frequently referred to as the love hormone as it’s also released during cuddling, sexual pleasure, and social bonding.

What is Pitocin?

Doctors use Pitocin to induce labor, or to jump-start a stalled labor. “The best-case scenario is natural labor, but that’s not always reality,” says Dr. Daniel Roshan, a board-certified high-risk maternal-fetal medicine OBGYN and the founder of Rosh Maternal & Fetal Medicine. “The last time I checked, the statistic was 40- to 50-percent of women deliver with the help of Pitocin.”

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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 a 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.

ALSO: The Real Cost of Giving Birth in the U.S. 

Pitocin’s Side Effects

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.

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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.