What Is Pitocin And When Is It Used To Induce Labor?

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

by Jayme Moye
Originally Published: 
A pregnant woman sitting in a hospital bed.
Cavan Images/Getty

Every expectant parent hopes for a simple, smooth delivery — one that requires the least possible medical intervention. But induced labor has become ever-more popular in recent years. It’s an effective way to aid in pregnancies that extend a week or two beyond the due date, or if natural labor doesn’t advance as it should. Roughly 1 in 5 deliveries are now induced, according to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG). One drug favorite among doctors is Pitocin, which is used to induce labor and safely move the process along. Although there can be side effects to Pitocin, it is commonly used to induce labor and is a safe medication.

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. “The best-case scenario is natural labor, but that’s not always a reality,” says Daniel Roshan, M.D., a high-risk maternal-fetal medicine OBGYN and the founder of Rosh Maternal & Fetal Medicine. But 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% of women deliver with the help of Pitocin.”

The pregnant body produces oxytocin before and throughout labor 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. The medication 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, Roshan says. “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.”

Pitocin Side Effects, 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 gestational parent. Roshan cites risks such as infection and blood clots that can lead to pulmonary embolism in the parent’s legs due to being sedentary for so long. In many cases, Pitocin makes the difference between vaginal delivery and a Cesarean section.

Side effects are the main reason some parents are averse to medically induced labor. Fortunately, Roshan says negative side effects of Pitocin are extremely rare, as it’s a naturally occurring hormone that the pregnant body expects during delivery.

When it was first being administered, the biggest problem with “Vitamin P” was 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 then titrates the Pitocin dosage as needed throughout the labor.

Many hospitals, including 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,” Roshan says.

There’s a good chance any hospital birth will involve Pitocin at some point, whether to induce labor or aid recovery.

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