This is #2 in a series of posts about pitocin. Check out the first one here!
Oxytocin, AKA the “love hormone,” is a hormone released in a woman’s body during sex, childbirth, breastfeeding, and plays a HUGE role in our bodies. It promotes bonding between partners and children, gets labor started, signals to the baby’s brain in utero that it’s about to be born, helps regulate fear and anxiety, produces an anti-depressant like effect, can inhibit drug addition and help with withdrawal symptoms, and in one study, the missing oxytocin recepter gene was linked to autism (source). WOW. Talk about a powerful hormone! Since this is a blog hosted by doulas, we’re going to focus here on the effects of oxytocin and pitocin during labor, delivery, and postpartum.
We still aren’t sure what exactly kicks labor into gear, but there are many postulations. Regardless of what starts labor, oxytocin is the critical hormone during labor and delivery. Oxytocin signals to the uterus to start contracting by increasing oxytocin receptors in the uterus, and keeps contractions going strong during labor. (Without sufficient oxytocin receptors, the uterus does not contract efficiently). It also helps reduce fear and anxiety, which is crucial during labor and delivery. Oxytocin is present in small amounts at the beginning of labor, and peaks at delivery, giving mom a sense of euphoria when baby is born, which immediately helps mom bond with her baby. It also contributes to the ejection of the placenta, and helps the uterus clamp down after birth, preventing postpartum hemorrhage.
Pitocin is a drug that is given intravenously during an induction of labor, during labor to augment (“help”) labor, and immediately postpartum. It is given continuously, and is increased manually throughout labor if deemed necessary. Oxytocin naturally comes in waves throughout labor, giving mom a break in between contractions. Pitocin, on the other hand, often causes contractions to be longer and stronger with smaller breaks in between due to the continuous nature of the IV drip. When a woman is in labor, oxytocin also works in harmony with other hormones in the body, including endorphins. With the increasing waves of oxytocin, mom’s brain is signaled to increase the level of endorphins released, helping cope with the pain and intensity of labor. Pitocin does not have this effect on endorphins (due to it not crossing the blood-brain barrier easily) which means pitocin augmented labors are often described as more painful and more intense than when labor is naturally progressing. At the end of labor, oxytocin peaks, causing the fetal ejection reflex, or Ferguson reflex–that “freight train” feeling that mom can’t fight–baby is GOING to come out. Pitocin is regulated by a pump, which means that peak is not going to happen. Once baby is born, a rush of oxytocin floods the brain, causing the new mother to immediately start bonding with her baby. The constant pump of pitocin interferes with the body’s signal to release that flood of oxytocin, so she doesn’t necessarily get that rush of “love” hormone right as she begins holding, cuddling, and nursing her baby. Oxytocin also signals the uterus to contract more, preventing excessive blood loss. One study showed that if a mother is exposed to pitocin during birth and immediately postpartum, the levels of oxytocin in her body 2 days later were actually LOWER than if she had not used pitocin. This can effect her postpartum recovery as well as her breastfeeding relationship with her new baby–both emotionally and physically, as oxytocin surge is needed to trigger milk let down.
Long-term, the same study is actually asserting that the more pitocin is used, it could actually have an effect genetically on the baby–essentially “turning off” the oxytocin recepter genes, meaning that when that baby goes to give birth as an adult, their body may not respond well to their natural oxytocin surges due to a lack of functioning oxytocin recepters. Naturally occurring oxytocin in the mother would not have the same effect on the baby.
Pitocin, while able to physically give a desired result (assisting in functional uterine contractions), is not the same as oxytocin. It effects the mother, the baby, the labor, delivery, and postpartum time differently than it’s natural counterpart. These differences should not be taken lightly, and should be considered when discussing whether the addition of pitocin during a labor and delivery are necessary.
Stay tuned for part 3: Pitocin and Alternatives During Labor.
Standard Disclaimer: Doulas are NOT medical professionals, and anything that is suggested or mentioned as an option on this blog should always be discussed with your care provider.