Last updated Dec. 28, 2017.
Labor is hard, plain and simple. It’s exhausting. It’s painful. Even with an epidural or other pain management, it just plain wears you out. Worse, it doesn’t always work — that’s right, sometimes it’s delivery day and your body just can’t or won’t push the baby out. That’s where Pitocin comes in. Pitocin is a drug used to induce labor and make your contractions strong enough to push that new baby out into the world.
So, what’s the deal with Pitocin induction? Is it safe?
What is Pitocin?
Pitocin is a synthetic version of oxytocin, a naturally occurring substance found in your body that causes your uterus to contract. If your body isn’t producing enough oxytocin on its own, Pitocin can give it the boost it needs to get the job done.
Pitocin is administered through an IV. It will start with very small doses and your doctor will slowly increase the dose until you’re in a strong, regular pattern of contractions.
Why induce labor?
It’s natural to think that labor will just sort of happen. In many cases, it does. Our bodies frequently know what to do and do it on their own, without much (or any) input from our conscious selves. However, that’s not always the case. Sometimes, our natural childbirth processes can get out of sync and labor doesn’t progress normally. That can stress the baby and cause health problems, so your doctor may want to get the ball rolling a little faster.
Your doctor may want to induce labor if:
—You’re 2 weeks past your due date and haven’t started labor. The baby doesn’t stop growing just because you hit your due date, and the bigger the baby, the harder the delivery. Large babies and their mothers face health risks during labor and the labor is more likely to be prolonged and difficult, increasing the likelihood of complications like fetal distress or the baby getting stuck in the birth canal. That can lead to oxygen deprivation and brain damage. Past-due babies are also at a higher risk for meconium aspiration syndrome.
—Your water has broken but you’re not having contractions. The amniotic fluid in your womb cushions your little one and provides protection from infections. Once your water breaks, the risk of infection traveling to your womb increases greatly. In general, you can wait around 24 hours after the break to see if you start labor. If not, your doctor will likely recommend inducing.
—Your uterus is infected. That infection can be transmitted to the baby, so your doctor may want to induce to get the baby out as quickly as possible.
—Your labor stalls. It happens. Sometimes your body just won’t dilate the last centimeter or two. Sometimes you’ve been in labor for a day already and your muscles are just tired. Labor is stressful for you and the baby, so your doctor may recommend using Pitocin to give your muscles a boost to get you through delivery and alleviate your little one’s stress.
—Certain other health problems. If your little one isn’t developing as expected or if there are problems with the placenta but a vaginal birth is still an option, your doctor may recommend inducing labor to avoid the need for a C-section.
Pitocin Side Effects
In general, Pitocin is believed to be very safe and effective. However, like any drug, there are potential side effects. Most commonly reported are nausea and vomiting. Anecdotal evidence suggests that some women find labor more painful with Pitocin than without it — more women use epidurals when they take Pitocin than otherwise, which suggests that that may be true.
There are some questions about the drug’s safety, however. A study released in 2013 found that newborns delivered with the help of Pitocin spent an average of 24 hours longer in the newborn intensive care unit (NICU) and had lower Apgar scores than their counterparts who were delivered without the help of the drug. This study prompted the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists to caution doctors to use a more careful and systematic approach in their decision to induce labor.
There is speculation that inducing labor can lead to more children being born prematurely as doctors believe they’re inducing past-due babies but have the dates wrong (determining the date of conception is not an exact science).
Finally, the contractions caused by Pitocin can be extremely powerful — powerful enough to stress the baby, which can cause serious health problems. Your medical care team should be carefully monitoring the baby’s heart rate and other vitals for signs of distress. If your little one gets stressed, your medical care team will likely recommend a C-section to get the baby out and relieve the stress. Sometimes, unfortunately, that doesn’t happen, often because the signs of distress aren’t adequately communicated to the whole team. When that happens, your little one may suffer serious birth injuries. That gives rise to a potential lawsuit for medical malpractice.
If your child was injured during a Pitocin-induced labor, please contact the Safe Birth Project for more information about your rights and options.
Is Pitocin right for me?
When you’re in the heat of labor and your doctor tells you it’s time to induce, you may not feel like you can or should question that decision. However, it’s your baby and your delivery and you have the right to ask your doctor some questions about why Pitocin may be necessary or whether it might be possible to wait a while longer to see if labor progresses naturally.
Pitocin is extremely common — about one-quarter of babies in the U.S. are delivered with its help. The question is whether it’s right for you. When you’re working on your birth plan, talk to your doctors about their policies on using Pitocin to induce labor. When labor actually arrives (or doesn’t, as the case may be), remember that you have the right to ask questions and make sure you understand your doctor’s reasoning before you induce. There are certain medical emergencies — preeclampsia, placental abruption, or chorioamnionitis, for example, which do require an expedited delivery. If you’re simply past your expected due date, however, you may talk to your doctor and decide that you’d rather wait and see what happens.
Some women may also choose to voluntarily induce once they reach their expected due date, for any number of reasons. That’s also something you’ll simply need to talk over with your doctor to make sure you understand the pros and cons.
Did your doctor induce labor with Pitocin? Tell us about your experience in the comments!