Pitocin is a drug that is used daily in every Labor and Delivery unit in this country. This medication is actually the brand name of the man-made form of oxytocin, which is a hormone made in the pituitary gland located in the brain. Pitocin can be given either intravenously or as an injection into the muscle during childbirth, and there are a few reasons why your doctor or midwife may order it.
Naturally occurring oxytocin is an important hormone that does lots of things: it helps the uterus contract during labor to deliver a baby; it keeps the uterus contracting after giving birth to decrease bleeding; and it is also causes a woman’s milk to let-down during breastfeeding.
Synthetic oxytocin, or Pitocin, is identical to this key hormone that our bodies produce. It is most often used as a way to induce labor or help it along if labor has stalled. When used to do these things, it is given through an IV. The drug only lasts in the bloodstream for about three to six minutes, which is why a continuous infusion drip is used. Pitocin isn’t delivered in a single dose; instead, your doctor or midwife will ask that your nurse turn the infusion pump up or down depending on how far apart your contractions are.
Pitocin to induce or help labor along really works best once the cervix is already dilated or considered “favorable” — that is, it is somewhat open, shortened, and soft. This means that if you are having your labor induced and your cervix is long and closed, something else will be used first before Pitocin is started.
Pitocin can also be used to help stop bleeding after giving birth. While some bleeding is normal, too much can lead to something called a postpartum hemorrhage, which is a medical emergency. Most hospitals will routinely give a woman Pitocin right after she delivers her baby and placenta to keep the bleeding minimal, either through her IV or as an injection in her leg (while it’s the same medication, the dose is different than if they are using it to help induce labor). If they did not do this and she begins to bleed heavily, it can also be given at that time.
While Pitocin is a drug that is used quite frequently on Labor and Delivery, it is not without risks. If the dose is too high and contractions occur too frequently when trying to induce labor, the baby’s heartrate can drop suddenly. Usually this can be quickly fixed by shutting off the Pitocin drip, but if improvement is not rapid enough, an emergency C-section may be necessary for the health of the baby.
Reviewed by Dr. Jen Lincoln, December 2018
- Pitocin is the synthetic drug form of oxytocin, a hormone produced by the pituitary gland.
- It can be given either intravenously or as an injection into the muscle during childbirth.
- This drug can be used to help induce labor, speed it along, or to prevent or treat postpartum bleeding.