When it comes to parenthood, it seems it’s always best to expect the unexpected—sometimes as early as the day your little one enters the world. Whether you’ve gone past your due date, your labor has stalled or an unforeseen health circumstance arises, your doctor may recommend jump-starting labor through an induction.
There are a few different ways to help get labor going1 (or going again if it’s stalled), ranging from medication to physical methods such as using a balloon to encourage cervical dilation (also known as a Foley Bulb)2 . One of the most commonly used methods is induction via a medication called Pitocin3 . Here’s everything you need to know about inducing labor with Pitocin.
What is Pitocin?
Pitocin is a synthetic version of oxytocin, the naturally occurring hormone that the body produces to signal the uterus that it’s showtime. Pitocin is a drug that causes the uterus to contract and is used to either induce labor or to speed it up.
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.
Pitocin can also be used immediately following baby’s birth to help your body deliver the placenta and according to American Family Physician4 (AAFP), is also used to help stop postpartum bleeding in the case of a postpartum hemorrhage.
Once an IV is set up, your healthcare provider will begin administering Pitocin in small doses. Depending on how your labor is progressing, your doctor will slowly up the dose about every 20-30 minutes or so until your contractions begin to form a regular pattern, about 2-3 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 can take 30 minutes to three days for Pitocin to make labor induction work,” says Tora Spigner, a registered labor and delivery nurse at Alta Bates Summit Medical Center5 . The time it takes for Pitocin to kick in varies from person to person, but most people 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.
Why would doctors want to induce labor?
Doctors typically recommend inducing labor for any of the following reasons:
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)
Fetal growth restrictions
What Are The Side Effects of Pitocin?
Like any drug, there are some side effects of a Pitocin induction—but since 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 birthing people experience are nausea, vomiting and fluid retention. Other side effects include:
Increased pain: Pitocin makes contractions stronger which can make for a pretty uncomfortable labor if the dosage isn’t properly managed. Studies show6 that people induced using Pitocin are more likely to request an epidural.
Fetal distress: Too much Pitocin not only intensifies contractions but speeds them up as well. Contractions that are too strong and close together can cause added stress on your baby, decreased placental blood flow and a lower fetal heartbeat. If you’re having a Pitocin induction, your healthcare provider will closely monitor your baby’s heart rate throughout your labor and may ease up on the dosage if needed.
Increased c-section rates: There’s some evidence that points to a link between inductions and an increased risk of cesarean sections7 , 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.
Babies operate on their own timelines and things happen that we don’t expect. If things don’t exactly go as planned and your doctor recommends you be induced, Pitocin is a safe and effective option to get things moving.