Pitocin Induction: Side Effects, Benefits and Risks

Everything You Need to Know About Pitocin Induction

February 27, 2019

Everything You Need to Know About Pitocin Induction

Everything You Need to Know About Pitocin Induction
Everything You Need to Know About Pitocin Induction

When it comes to motherhood, it seems it’s always best to expect the unexpected—sometimes as early as the day your little one enters the world.

While many of women deliver around their due date and all goes as planned, this isn’t always the case for everyone. You may find yourself still pregnant at 41 weeks; your labor may start off strong and then stall; or your doctor may recommend that it’s best for you and for baby to jump-start labor a bit earlier than planned. And that’s where Pitocin comes in.

Learn everything you need to know about this commonly used drug below.

What is Pitocin?

Pitocin is a drug that causes the uterus to contract and is used to either induce labor or to speed it up. Pitocin is a synthetic version of oxytocin, the naturally occurring hormone that a woman’s body produces to signal the uterus to contract during labor.

Before Pitocin came around in the mid-1950s, there weren’t many options other than a c-section for a woman who was either overdue or whose labor had stalled. Pitocin changed all that. Although it’s always great when nature takes its course, Pitocin induction opened new options to both healthcare providers and laboring women.

Inducing Labor with Pitocin

There are a few reasons why a doctor may recommend a Pitocin induction. Common ones include:

  • A post-term pregnancy—going two weeks beyond your due date
  • A premature rupture of membranes (when your water breaks, but labor doesn’t begin)

There are other conditions that may lead to a Pitocin induction, including:

Pitocin induction is one of the most common methods your doctor may decide to use to if it becomes clear that it’s best for the health of you or your baby to intervene and deliver sooner or faster.

The objective of a Pitocin induction is to mimic the natural labor process. Just like oxytocin would during a natural labor, Pitocin works to signal to your uterus that it needs to contract. The goal is to use the drug to encourage strong, consistent contractions at regular intervals that will work to dilate your cervix and move you to the pushing stage of labor. Since Pitocin causes the uterus to contract, it can also be used immediately following baby’s birth to help speed up the delivery of the placenta and stop postpartum bleeding.

Pitocin is administered by a pump via an IV. Once your line is in, your healthcare provider will begin administering the drug in small doses. Depending on how you progress, your doctor will slowly up the dose about every 20-30 minutes or so until your contractions begin to form a regular pattern, about two to three minutes apart. (If you’re contracting too much, your doctor may decide to decrease the dose to avoid putting too much stress on baby—and on you.)

How Long Does It Take for Pitocin to Work?

It’s tough to know exactly how long Pitocin will take to kick in, as it varies greatly from woman to woman. Most women report feeling the drug’s effects about an hour or so after it’s administered. Once contractions begin to settle into an active pattern and intensify, factors like how soft and open your cervix is and if you’ve had previous deliveries or not play a big role in how quickly the Pitocin works to dilate the cervix and speed up delivery.

Using Pitocin to Start Labor vs. to Augment Labor

Pitocin can be used in one of two ways:

  • To start labor if it hasn’t begun naturally
  • To jump-start a labor that has stalled for some reason

Long labors can be exhausting and can pose a danger to mom and baby (risks like blood clots and infection and odds of a cesarean delivery all rise with longer labors), so Pitocin inductions are often used to as a means to move things along. If this is the case, the process of administering the drug is exactly the same as if it were being used to start labor: Pitocin is given through an IV in small doses until contractions once again pick up.

Pitocin Side Effects

Like any drug, there are some side effects of a Pitocin induction—but as it’s a form of a naturally occurring hormone, these effects tend to be mild and easily treated.

Some of the milder side effects of Pitocin that women experience are nausea, vomiting and fluid retention.

Other side effects include:

  • Increased pain. Pitocin makes contractions stronger. (Studies show that women who are induced with Pitocin are more likely to request an epidural.) This can make for a pretty uncomfortable labor if the dosage isn’t properly managed.
  • Fetal distress. Pitocin not only intensifies contractions, but speeds up labor too. Too much Pitocin can lead to contractions that are too strong, too close together or both, which can mean added stress on your baby, decreased placental blood flow and a lower fetal heartbeat. This is why if you’re having a Pitocin induction, your healthcare provider will carefully monitor your baby’s heart rate throughout, and may ease up on the dosage if baby begins to show signs of distress.
  • Increased c-section rates. There’s some evidence that points to a link between inductions and an increased risk of cesarean sections, most notably if Pitocin is the only method being used to induce labor.
  • Uterine rupture. Because Pitocin ups the intensity of contractions, there’s a very small risk of a uterine rupture or a tear in the uterine wall—but this is extremely rare.

Pitocin is a safe, effective option that helps many women during labor and delivery. Be sure to speak with your healthcare provider if you have more questions or concerns as your due date approaches.

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