The Benefits and Risks of Pitocin: What You Should Know - Baby Chick
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The Benefits and Risks of Pitocin: What You Should Know

Pitocin is a drug very often used to induce labor. But what is it? And is it safe? Here are the benefits and risks you should know.

Updated April 8, 2024

by Jessica Tzikas

Medically reviewed by Kristy Goodman

Obstetrician-Gynecologist Physician Assistant, MS, MPH, PA-C

If you’ve been pregnant for more than 5 minutes, you’ve probably already started thinking about the labor and delivery part of your journey. There are many choices a mom has to make before actually getting to the hospital, and one of them is whether or not to get Pitocin. As with any drug, there are pros and cons to having Pitocin administered. Here is a breakdown of things you should consider about Pitocin.

What Is Pitocin?

Oxytocin is the hormone that naturally induces labor. Pitocin is the synthetic version of Oxytocin.1 Pitocin mimics the hormone in an attempt to send your body into labor. It is administered by an IV injection that helps start contractions or further them. Most moms who are induced will be given Pitocin to help their bodies go into labor during their induction. Pitocin is also sometimes used to help a mother who may have excessive bleeding and hemorrhaging after the baby is born.2

Pitocin is administered through an IV in your arm. You will likely start with one dose (two milliunits) to see how your body reacts to the medicine. Some women may only need that one dose and quickly begin to have contractions, while others may need multiple doses to get things started. A nurse will likely continue to raise the amount of Pitocin (raising it up to two milliunits every 15 to 45 minutes) until contractions begin and occur regularly.3

For me, I had a great experience with Pitocin. I was scheduled for an induction due to a blood disorder at 39 weeks and was given Pitocin. As one of the lucky women whose body reacted well to the medicine, I quickly began having contractions. I did not experience any adverse side effects, and after that one dose, my body began to do its thing naturally, and I had a pretty smooth delivery. But not all women have this same experience. As with every medication or medical procedure, Pitocin has some positives and negatives.

The Benefits of Pitocin

Many women, myself included, do not have a choice if we get induced. Inductions can be due to medical reasons known at the start of pregnancy, health issues during pregnancy, or a baby who goes beyond its due date. According to the Mayo Clinic, a few common reasons for induction include:4

  • You have gestational diabetes.
  • Your water breaks and labor does not start on its own.
  • You’re two weeks past your baby’s due date.
  • You have an infection.
  • You have a disorder causing high blood pressure.
  • Your amniotic fluid is too low.
  • The baby has stopped growing.
  • A medical condition where birth or labor can be dangerous without medical care.

Pitocin is a common drug used to help inductions progress. Doctors are well versed in how to use it safely. Using Pitocin can help your labor progress and keep things moving at a pace that is safely monitored for you and the baby.

The Risks of Pitocin

Pitocin isn’t for everyone, and there are certain circumstances in which it should not be used, such as:3

  • if you’ve had a prior C-section or major uterine surgery (in some circumstances)
  • your placenta is blocking your cervix
  • baby is breech or side-lying in utero
  • baby is already experiencing fetal distress

Further, Pitocin isn’t a miracle drug—it cannot magically cause your body to go into labor. For a doctor to give you a dose of Pitocin, your cervix must already be gearing up for pregnancy. If your cervix is not open enough and ready for labor, Pitocin is not an option.

If your cervix is ready for labor and Pitocin becomes an option for you, it’s important to understand the risks. These include:

Other Interventions May Become Necessary

Pitocin is also said to cause stronger and more intense contractions than those that come during natural labor. The use of Pitocin can be more painful than you may have expected. Most women often ask for an epidural after being administered Pitocin because it is more painful. If you know that you want an epidural, ask your doctor about it before you receive the Pitocin so they can prepare it before contractions begin.

Longer Labor

These days, 40% of women in labor report having been induced.6 Many women receiving Pitocin received it due to a scheduled induction. Many women do not realize that inductions can take a long time, sometimes lasting days before the baby is born. Studies show that having an induction with Pitocin almost doubles the amount of time a woman is in labor in many circumstances.7 Many parents, specifically first-time parents or parents who have never experienced an induction, don’t truly realize how long it can take. When you begin labor at home, you can spend much of your early labor moving around in the comfort of your home. When induced, you must spend the entire time at the hospital, restricted in movement and closely monitored. This can make the process seem even longer.

Increased Chance of C-Section

One in four moms who have an induction will experience a failed induction.4 Failed inductions most often lead to a C-section. This study found that having induction doubled the risk of having a C-section.5

Fetal Distress

Because Pitocin causes contractions to be longer, stronger, and more frequent than natural contractions, babies can suffer from a lack of blood flow, which can cause oxygen deprivation and lower your baby’s heart rate.8,4

Higher Chance of Hemorrhage

The intense contractions caused by Pitocin can cause the uterus to tear and internal hemorrhaging to occur.9 While uterine rupture is rare, it can lead to maternal and fetal death.

Risks of Pitocin to the Baby

Pitocin also carries serious risks for the baby, as outlined by the U.S. package insert. These risks include:3

  • heart rate abnormalities
  • neonatal jaundice
  • neonatal retinal hemorrhage
  • neonatal seizures
  • low APGAR scores
  • permanent brain injury
  • death

In Addition to the Risks, Pitocin Also Comes With Some Rules

Once administered, you will be hooked up to a fetal heart rate monitor attached around your stomach continuously. This is used so your doctor can closely monitor how the baby reacts to the induced labor. And since they must monitor you carefully, you may be confined to your bed. After they gave me Pitocin, even slight movements from side to side had to be supervised by a nurse. And there was no getting up and moving around! (This is why you will also have a catheter because you can’t get up to use the restroom.) Once Pitocin is administered, you are also no longer allowed to eat because there is a risk of aspiration if you eventually have to have a c-section.

If your doctor recommends Pitocin, make sure you weigh the benefits and the risks. Women are induced for various reasons, and the use of Pitocin can help move your labor along if necessary. Bring up any concerns to your doctor to fully understand your options regarding a safe and successful induction.

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Jessica is a writer and editor with a focus on all things lifestyle. Whether she is discovering the latest restaurants, staying up-to-date on new styles, helping brides plan their wedding,… Read more

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