Oxytocin – the generic name for Pitocin – is a synthetic hormone that promotes contractions during childbirth. Used for many years by obstetricians and midwives to induce and speed up births, its use has become controversial in recent years as research uncovers a strong correlation between oxytocin and brain damage in babies.
In the UK, this correlation has prompted well-respected physicians and medical facilities to recently reconsider its use. A professor and consultant at London’s Chelsea and Westminster Hospital has called for oxytocin to only be administered in a few cases where labor must be induced due to dangerous conditions like preeclampsia (high blood pressure) or post-term pregnancies.
Closer to home, U.S. hospitals like New York-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell introduced protocols around the use of oxytocin following the Institute for Safe Medication Practices placing oxytocin on its “High-Alert” drug list. Drugs that appear on this list carry a risk of causing significant harm if used incorrectly. It is estimated that these protocols have helped to decrease New York Presbyterian’s annual medical negligence bills by about 90%.
What Risks Does Oxytocin Pose?
This delivery drug works by promoting uterine contractions. During a contraction, the baby’s oxygen supply is briefly interrupted. Therefore, contractions should not occur more than 3-4 times about every ten minutes. The danger of contractions occurring too rapidly is that there isn’t enough time for the baby to recover in between contractions, resulting in the baby receiving inadequate oxygen. This can lead to a condition called hypoxic ischemic encephalopathy (HIE), or birth asphyxia. This type of brain damage can mean a lifetime of physical and intellectual disabilities for the baby.
Additionally, when oxytocin causes contractions to occur more often – or too often (called hyperstimulation)– they become weaker and less effective at pushing the baby out. Labor becomes prolonged, increasing the likelihood of HIE.
Numerous studies have been done on the negative effects of oxytocin during labor and delivery and its correlation to brain damage in babies. Yet this delivery drug remains one of the most widely used among obstetricians. Unless stricter guidelines are uniformly enacted, the risks of brain damage to babies from HIE will continue to rise.
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