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What is Pitocin and Why Is It Used to Induce Labor?

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

Every expectant parent hopes for a simple, smooth delivery, maybe even one that requires little medical intervention. But induced labor has become ever-more popular in recent years as it’s proven to be an effective way to aid in pregnancies that extend a week or two beyond the due date or natural labor doesn’t advance as it should. In fact, according to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG), roughly 1 in 5 deliveries are now induced. One drug favorite among doctors is Pitocin, which is used to induce labor and safely move the process along.

What is Pitocin?

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. Though the use of Pitocin to induce labor has long been common practice, speeding up childbirth with the help of drugs can be a scary prospect for parents. But drugs are a lot less ominous when you know exactly what’s in them, how they work, the right dosage to take, and what potential side-effects to expect.

When Pitocin Is Used

“The best-case scenario is natural labor, but that’s not always a reality,” says Dr. Roshan. 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.”

How Pitocin Induction Works

Women’s bodies produce oxytocin before and throughout pregnancy to signal the uterus to begin contracting. Pitocin is the synthetic version of that naturally occurring hormone, providing an extra oxytocin boost to kickstart labor and keep it on track. Pitocin is administered through an IV, and its effects typically start within 30 minutes to an hour.  Pitocin was such a game-changer when first discovered that doctors called it Vitamin P, according to Dr. Daniel Roshan, a board-certified high-risk maternal-fetal medicine OBGYN and the founder of Rosh Maternal & Fetal Medicine. “Prior to Pitocin, doctors would ask patients to stimulate their nipples to try and generate oxytocin to get the contractions going,” he tells Fatherly. “Other than that, there was nothing that could be done.”

Weighing Pitocin Risks and Benefits

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 risks like blood clots in the mother’s legs (which can lead to pulmonary embolism), due to being sedentary for so long, and infection. 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.

Pitocin Side-Effects

Side-effects are the main reason some parents are averse to medically-induced labor. Fortunately,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 the Pitocin dosage — doctors and nurses administering too much, creating contractions that came too fast and too hard, causing extreme pain for the mother and potential fetal distress for the baby. Today’s standard is to mimic natural contractions, starting slowly with a Pitocin dosage of two milliunits, and gradually increasing. The nurse will then titrate the Pitocin dosage as needed throughout the labor.

Pitocin and Recovery 

Many hospitals, including Dr. Roshan’s in New York City, administer Pitocin 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. There’s a good chance any hospital birth will involve Pitocin at some point, whether to induce labor or aid recovery. Luckily it has been in wide use for many years now, so the risks of Pitocin are minimal.