Oxytocin is the hormone responsible for starting and progressing labour. You can find more detailed information about how labour actually starts in our article, What Causes Labour To Start.
Pitocin (US) or Syntocinon (Aus) is a synthetic version of oxytocin used to induce or augment (speed up) labour.
While synthetic oxytocin might trigger contractions, it isn't identical to the oxytocin hormone produced naturally, and it certainly isn't without risks.
When medically necessary, using synthetic oxytocin is a way to get baby out before spontaneous labour begins.
This is essential and potentially life-saving in some cases – for example, when a mother has pre-eclampsia. Medical intervention is only necessary when there is evidence that mother-baby safety has been compromised, and the risk of not intervening is greater than the risk of the intervention itself.
Therefore, it’s important that you’re informed about all of the potential risks related to your birth choices.
Is Pitocin Really So Different From Oxytocin?
When a healthy woman has a normal, physiological birth – a birth without interventions – she has a low risk of complications. Oxytocin is produced, released and regulated naturally by her body during labour. It doesn't carry the risks of synthetic oxytocin.
Utilising synthetic oxytocin increases the risk of several things, including:
- Postpartum haemorrhage
- Adverse effects on term newborns, resulting in unexpected NICU stays
- Hypertonic uterus (hyper-stimulation of the uterus when contractions are too long, too intense and coming too frequently)
When a mother’s or baby’s health and safety are at risk, the benefits of starting the birth process outweigh these risks. This information isn’t meant to scare mothers who need an induction. In risk situations, an induction makes it possible to have a vaginal birth, when baby needs to come now. The information is to help parents make fully informed decisions about birth.
If Pitocin isn't the same as oxytocin, how does it vary? It varies in many ways. In fact, there are several things that oxytocin can do that Pitocin can't.
Here are 5 things oxytocin can do that synthetic oxytocin can't:
#1: Oxytocin Is Naturally Regulated
When your body releases oxytocin, it is done in a patterned way. It is released in a pulsating manner, which works to create naturally spaced contractions. While the timing and intensity of contractions vary from birth to birth, because oxytocin is from your own body the contractions don’t become dangerously intense.
Pitocin is administered through an IV, in a continuous drip. When your body has a continuous drip of Pitocin the contractions can be more intense; they can last much longer and come more frequently than in a labour without Pitocin. The intense contractions, with little reprieve between them, can increase the risk of fetal distress, asphyxia and other complications.
If an induction becomes medically necessary you can discuss your induction options with your provider. Often, a woman will opt to start with a very low dose of Pitocin, which is slowly increased, and then decreased if her body begins to regulate contractions on its own
#2: Oxytocin Triggers Labour When The Cervix Is Ready
As your body prepares for labour your cervix begins to ripen (soften) and efface (thin out). In a birth that unfolds naturally, labour starts after your cervix begins to ripen. You can be sure labour is beginning when your cervix is ready. The oxytocin triggers contractions, which are then effective in dilating the cervix.
When an induction occurs, it is possible the cervix isn't ready to begin dilating. Even with the use of prostaglandins, Pitocin isn't as effective in dilating the cervix as oxytocin is.
When Pitocin is used to augment, or speed up labour, the more intense contractions aren't always effective in speeding up dilation. If labour has begun but isn't progressing as quickly as expected, there are options besides Pitocin.
Walking, touch, nipple stimulation, and creating a comfortable environment can trigger the release of more oxytocin. If baby isn’t in an optimal position that, too, can slow dilation. Using movement to help baby get into the optimal position might help labour progress.
#3: Oxytocin Triggers The Release Of Endorphins
When contractions are intense, your body doesn’t leave you without a way to cope. The release of oxytocin also triggers your body to release endorphins. Endorphins are Nature’s pain relief. They help you focus inward, so you can cope with the intensity of contractions.
Pitocin causes contractions, but regardless of pain or intensity, it does not trigger your body to release endorphins. So you might experience stronger contractions than in a typical labour, but you are without natural pain relief.
#4: Oxytocin Peaks Just Before The Birth
As labour progresses, your body continues to release oxytocin, which peaks just before you birth your baby. The increase and peak of oxytocin can trigger the fetal ejection reflex, which helps baby descend through the birth canal. This reflex can make the second stage of labour – the pushing phase – quicker and easier.
Pitocin is given in a steady drip. It doesn't trigger the fetal ejection reflex in the same way. This can make the pushing phase more difficult than in a physiological birth.
#5: Oxytocin Encourages Bonding
Oxytocin is also known as the ‘love hormone'. This is because the release of oxytocin encourages connection, bonding and feelings of love. Mamas and babies benefit from the peak of oxytocin just before the birth. The high levels encourage closeness, which in turn triggers the release of even more oxytocin.
Pitocin doesn't reach the brain in the way natural oxytocin does. Although Pitocin triggers contractions, it doesn’t cause the release of other hormones, or encourage bonding.
It is certainly possible to bond after the birth, with closeness and skin-to-skin. The release of oxytocin just before birth is a step in the natural progression from pregnancy to motherhood, and can help to ease the transition.
World famous obstetrician, Doctor Michel Odent, is passionate about how modern day interventions are interfering with normal hormonal processes, including mother-baby bonding. See what he has to say in the video below.
We are fortunate to have access to obstetrical interventions when the need for them arises. It is important, however, to remember that synthetic Pitocin isn't identical to natural oxytocin. Physiological birth is a complex process, with many benefits.
Birth is a natural physiological process that, without intervention, most often progresses in the safest way.