Is Pitocin a Health Risk for Babies?
A study finds that a common drug used for inductions may have unintended consequences for newborns
Pitocin—the synthetic form of the hormone oxytocin—is often used to jumpstart labor or to speed up a labor that has slowed down or stalled out. But could Pitocin be putting a baby’s health at risk? The medication is now under scrutiny after new research found it appears to be linked to lower Apgar scores in newborns and more frequent admissions to the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU).
In the study, researchers from Beth Israel Medical Center in New York City collected data from more than 3,000 women who gave birth at the hospital between 2009 and 2011. Results showed that full-term infants born to moms who were given Pitocin to induce or augment labor were more likely to require a NICU stay of at least 24 hours. Babies born as the result of Pitocin-augmented labors were also more likely to score less than 7 on the Apgar test, the standard test that evaluates a newborn’s physical condition. An Apgar score of 8 or higher is generally regarded as the standard for a baby in good health.
What’s going on with Pitocin? At this point, researchers aren’t quite sure. On the one hand, Pitocin, like any drug, can cause side effects—and this study is the first to examine how newborns respond to the drug. On the other hand, it could be that moms who are induced are more likely to be experiencing complications—including gestational diabetes and preeclampsia—and it’s the complications, not the drug, that are putting some babies at risk.
“If you’re in labor and your labor stops, it’s tricky to figure out [if there was a later] adverse outcome because your labor stopped or because of the Pitocin use,” Dr. Siobhan Dolan, medical adviser to the nonprofit March of Dimes, tells The Huffington Post. She calls the new findings “interesting” and notes that the questions researchers have raised about the drug merit further investigation.
Even before this study, Pitocin use has not been without some controversy. According to recent CDC statistics, it’s estimated that almost 1 in 4 pregnant women in the US have their labors induced. Many in the medical community question whether these numbers reflect true medical need—or point to induced labors being performed only for the sake of convenience. “If labor is being induced (for a medically-valid reason), Pitocin use is indicated and appropriate. If a doctor is anxious to leave the hospital and starts Pitocin to accelerate the timeline of labor, that is inappropriate,” says ABC News health contributor and board-certified ob-gyn, Jennifer Ashton, MD.
Andrea Morse, a mom of two from Spokane, Washington, is one of the many women who ended up having her labor induced. In 2006, she found herself overdue with her first child and no sign that labor was anywhere close to starting. When an ultrasound four days past her due date picked up a steep drop in her amniotic fluid levels, she was induced the next morning.
“I was put on the ‘pit drip’ at 6:30 AM. Contractions started within a half hour, my amniotic sac ruptured on its own by 9:30 AM, and at 12: 36 pm, my baby girl arrived safe and sound. It felt like a very fast and intense labor, but I didn’t know because I had nothing to compare it to,” she recalls. “It was only after my second baby was born after 12 hours of labor—no Pitocin—that I understood how gradually labor contractions can come on, and how you can deal with them. However, I understood the medical reasons why I needed Pitocin, so I have no regrets.”
The last sentiment is key—understanding the reasons and the risks. As Ashton advises, “The bottom line is that if Pitocin is recommended, a pregnant woman has every right to ask why, what the indications are, and if there are any reasonable options.”
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