What Is Pitocin?

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Pitocin (oxytocin injection) is a synthetic form of oxytocin. Oxytocin is a hormone that causes the uterus to contract. It is given through an intravenous (IV) line to induce (start) or augment (speed up) contractions during labor. 

This article will discuss Pitocin, including its purpose, risks, and complications.

Healthcare provider and pregnant person in delivery room, may decide to use Pitocin to induce labor

Ariel Skelley / Getty Images

Purpose

Pitocin (oxytocin injection) is given intravenously as a method of labor induction, typically at least 39 weeks into pregnancy. You may be given medication first to “ripen” your cervix (the lower part of the uterus) and prepare you for labor. 

If you’ve already gone into labor naturally and aren’t progressing, your healthcare provider may give you Pitocin to speed up your contractions. Usually, Pitocin starts to stimulate contractions within about 30 minutes. 

While Pitocin is being delivered through your IV drip, your medical team will monitor your blood pressure and contractions. They will also monitor your baby for any signs of fetal distress (inadequate oxygen supply).

How Many People Are Given Pitocin During Labor?

Estimates suggest that about 22% of pregnant people in the United States have their labor induced, often with a medication like Pitocin.

There are many possible medical reasons for labor induction. Your healthcare provider may recommend Pitocin if:

  • You are more than 42 weeks pregnant and haven’t gone into labor.
  • Your amniotic fluid (the fluid in the sac surrounding the fetus) level is low.
  • Your baby is experiencing intrauterine growth restriction (IUGR) and isn’t growing fast enough.
  • You have chorioamnionitis (an infection of the amniotic fluid and placenta—the organ that develops in the uterus to provide blood and nutrients to the developing fetus).
  • You have premature rupture of membranes (PROM), meaning that your amniotic sac ruptured on its own but you aren’t having contractions.
  • You have gestational diabetes.
  • You have high blood pressure.
  • There are problems with your heart, kidneys, or other major organs.
  • There are problems with the function or size of the placenta.

Pitocin may be administered on its own to induce or speed up labor contractions. Injectable oxytocin may also be used alongside other methods of labor induction, such as rupturing the amniotic sac (the sac that contains amniotic fluid and protects the fetus during pregnancy).

Risks

When used for medical reasons, Pitocin is typically safe and effective for both the pregnant person and fetus. Side effects of Pitocin may include:

  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Fever during childbirth

In some cases, Pitocin may slow down contractions or cause them to be irregular. This can increase your risk of needing an emergency cesarean delivery (C-section) if your body is not ready. A C-section is the surgical delivery of the baby. The possible risks of a C-section include:

  • Blood loss
  • Blood clots
  • Infection
  • Bladder or bowel injuries 

If your labor is induced and your due date wasn’t calculated correctly, you may have an increased risk of giving birth to a late preterm baby. A late preterm baby (born between 34 and 37 weeks) could have certain health and behavioral concerns, such as:

  • Jaundice (yellowing of the skin caused by excess bilirubin in the blood)
  • Breathing problems
  • Difficulty maintaining body temperature 
  • Problems with breastfeeding
  • Developmental delays in early childhood

Because of the possible risks of an elective induction (an induction of labor for convenience or personal preference), you should ideally be given Pitocin only if it is medically necessary.

Who Should Not Be Given Pitocin?

In certain cases, it may not be safe to induce labor with Pitocin. Your healthcare provider may recommend that you have a C-section instead if certain conditions are present, such as:


  • Breech presentation (when the baby is positioned head up instead of head down)
  • Placenta previa (when the placenta partially or completely covers the cervix)
  • Infection, such as genital herpes
  • Umbilical cord prolapse (when the umbilical cord drops into the birth canal before the baby)
  • Cervical cancer
  • A history of uterine surgery or prior C-sections

Complications

While rare, some serious medical complications are possible when using Pitocin to induce labor. Severe complications from Pitocin may include:

  • Uterine rupture (tearing of the uterus)
  • Uterine hyperstimulation, which can cause contractions that are too long, frequent, or severe
  • Seizures (uncontrolled electrical activity in the brain) caused by low blood pressure or low sodium levels
  • Excessive bleeding
  • Symptoms of a severe allergic reaction, such as rash, hives, difficulty breathing, rapid heartbeat, or swelling

In very rare cases, Pitocin may cause fetal distress, fetal health complications, or stillbirth.

If you experience any side effects from Pitocin, let your healthcare provider know right away. They can decrease your dose or give you other medications to help to control your symptoms. 

Summary

Pitocin (oxytocin injection) is a synthetic form of oxytocin—a hormone that stimulates the uterus. It is given intravenously to start or speed up labor contractions during childbirth. 

Your healthcare provider may recommend using Pitocin to induce labor if you are more than 42 weeks pregnant or if your amniotic sac has already ruptured but your contractions haven’t started.

They may also recommend Pitocin due to certain medical conditions, such as a uterine infection, gestational diabetes, high blood pressure, restricted fetal growth, problems with the placenta, or problems with your major organs. 

Side effects from Pitocin may include nausea, vomiting, and fever. In some cases, Pitocin may slow down or prolong labor, increasing the risk of an emergency C-section. Serious complications from Pitocin, such as uterine rupture or excessive bleeding, are rare.

A Word From Verywell

When medically necessary, Pitocin can be a safe, effective way to induce labor. If you’re concerned about the potential side effects of Pitocin, talk to your healthcare provider as early as possible in your pregnancy.

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11 Sources
Verywell Health 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.
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