What Is Pitocin?

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What Is Pitocin?

Pitocin is a synthetic version of the pregnancy hormone oxytocin, which causes the uterus to contract. This medication is often used when labor does not begin on its own by the due date or there are medical (or other) reasons that necessitate early delivery. Pitocin is delivered intravenously in a hospital setting and usually quickly results in increasingly strong contractions.

Why It's Important

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, approximately 23% of deliveries in the United States are induced. There are several methods to encourage labor, but in medical settings, one of the most commonly used is the drug Pitocin. In fact, according to the National Partnership for Women and Families, 63% of induced labors include the use of Pitocin.

The use of Pitocin provides a reliable, safe, medically-controlled way to induce labor that helps speed along the deliveries of millions of babies each year.

Uses for Pitocin

There are many reasons Pitocin is used to induce labor. One of the main uses of the drug is to treat prolonged, difficult, or obstructed labor (labor dystocia), especially when doing so may reduce rates of cesarean sections.

Another common indication is when labor does not start on its own, particularly if the mother and/or baby is in any distress. Other typical reasons for inducing labor include:

  • Complications due to Rh factor (this can occur when a mother who has a negative blood type is carrying a baby who has a positive blood type)
  • Health problems in the mother, including diabetes and kidney disease
  • Low amniotic fluid levels
  • Preeclampsia or high blood pressure
  • Ruptured membranes (without the start of labor)
  • Slow fetal growth
  • Uterine infection

Labor may also be induced electively to alleviate the discomforts of pregnancy in the mother or prevent potential complications from occurring. Additionally, people may choose to induce using Pitocin due to timing or other issues, such as working around schedules to ensure a partner (or a specific doctor) can be present at the delivery.

How Labor Is Induced

The liquid Pitocin medication is diluted with a standard saline solution and given in an intravenous (IV) drip. The infusion of Pitocin is regulated on a medication pump to make sure a very specific amount is given.

Carefully regulating the dose helps to minimize complications and allows your doctor or midwife to mimic the course of normal labor as much as possible.

The IV drip will be set to deliver a certain amount of Pitocin every hour. Depending on the orders written by your practitioner, the Pitocin drip is usually turned up each hour until you reach a certain contraction pattern. The desired pattern can be different for each woman.

Some practitioners choose to turn the Pitocin up quickly, while others prefer to take it slow. The protocol used in your case will depend on why you are being induced and other factors specific to your medical needs. The speed of the drip (and how much you end up needing) also correlates to how well you and your baby respond to the drug.

Speeding Up Labor

Pitocin can also be used to speed up your labor. This is known as augmentation of labor. A 2011 review of studies found that, on average, Pitocin results in a relatively small decrease in total labor time (about two hours).

However, even a small reduction in laboring may provide significant relief to the pregnant mother. Other methods known to speed up slow labor in addition to or instead of Pitocin include breaking the bag of waters (amniotomy), acupressure, and movement, such as walking and bouncing on a yoga ball.

Tips

Some women worry that using Pitocin will result in more painful labor. However, these concerns are not easy to affirm or dismiss because the perception of pain is quite subjective and variable. That said, Pitocin does make contractions stronger, which may translate into stronger pain.

Also, every experience with Pitocin will be different. Some women have no problems with the medication, while others end up dissatisfied with the effect it has on their labor. However, it's difficult to objectively separate the effects of the drug and what might have happened without Pitocin, as this can not be known.

Your personal experience may also depend on your expectations, how you and your baby respond, and how your practitioner uses the medication. Discussing how your labor will be managed ahead of time may help you adjust more easily if Pitocin is needed.

In some cases, your plans to have unmedicated labor may be altered if your healthcare provider believes Pitocin is the right choice for you and your baby. Whether your birth experience goes according to plan or not, it is helpful to have adequate support, such as a partner, family, or doula.

Potential Challenges

If you are being induced with Pitocin, there are several additional safety precautions that may be needed during your labor and delivery. Your doctor or midwife may put in place any of the following:

Potential Risks

As with any medication or intervention, using Pitocin has risks. However, it's important to note that this medication is generally safe and has a low risk of serious complications. Some possible complications of using Pitocin include:

  • Cesarean section (this risk may be reduced with amniotomy)
  • Contractions that come too close together, making labor more difficult to manage
  • Fetal distress
  • Higher likelihood of requesting pain medication, like an epidural
  • Uterine rupture

There are also certain situations when Pitocin should not be used. Some examples of contraindications include the following:

  • The baby is not in a position conducive to delivery (malposition) or is in fetal distress (in which cases a c-section delivery may be needed)
  • You are allergic to Pitocin or any of the medication's ingredients
  • You are carrying multiples
  • You have a condition that may be affected by the drug's use, such as high blood pressure (hypertension)
  • You have a pregnancy complication, such as placenta previa
  • You have had a c-section before
  • You have given birth more than six times

In cases where Pitocin is contraindicated, other methods of induction, such as intentionally rupturing the amniotic sac, waiting for labor to occur naturally, or a cesarean section may be used.

A Word From Verywell

For many reasons, such as an enthusiasm for a specific birth plan and/or medication-free childbirth, some women may perceive using Pitocin as a failure or disappointment. But that couldn't be farther from the truth. Regardless of your plans, labor and delivery rarely go exactly as expected.

Moreover, childbirth including Pitocin is no less beautiful or heroic than a "natural" one—and the important thing is the baby that ends up in your arms.

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Article Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Health Statistics. Recent declines in induction of labor by gestational age. Published June 2014.

  2. National Partnership for Women and Families. Quick facts about labor induction. Published August 2016.

  3. Hidalgo-Lopezosa P, Hidalgo-Maestre M, Rodríguez-Borrego MA. Labor stimulation with oxytocin: Effects on obstetrical and neonatal outcomesRev Lat Am Enfermagem. 2016;24:e2744. doi:10.1590/1518-8345.0765.2744

  4. National Institutes of Health, Office of Research on Women's Health. Labor and birth. Published June 6, 2018.

  5. Bugg GJ, Siddiqui F, Thornton JG. Oxytocin versus no treatment or delayed treatment for slow progress in the first stage of spontaneous labour. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2011;(7):CD007123. doi:10.1002/14651858.cd007123.pub2

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