Pitocin and Its Ties to Cerebral Palsy
By Stacey Bucklin
CP Family Network Editor
Pitocin is the synthetic version of a naturally occurring hormone called oxytocin that is produced by a woman’s body during labor and delivery. It is used to induce labor or to speed up (augment) natural labor. It may also be administered to help a mother expel the placenta after delivery and to help get a mother’s milk flowing for breastfeeding.
Although commonly used, Pitocin can cause complications which can lead to brain injury and cerebral palsy in unborn children and newborns. Expectant parents should carefully consider the risks and benefits of Pitocin and discuss their options with their doctor before they arrive in the delivery room.
When Should Pitocin be Considered
The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists sanctions the use of Pitocin “to induce labor for convenience once a woman has reached her 39th week of pregnancy and her cervix is ripe.” However, not all doctors agree with this sanction and will only induce labor under certain conditions.
A doctor may consider using Pitocin to induce delivery when:
- A woman is approaching her 42nd week of pregnancy
- Labor needs to be augmented or sped up, such as when a woman’s water has broken but contractions have not yet begun
- An epidural has slowed down the labor process
Risks of Pitocin
Pitocin is administered through an IV. Typically, the dose is slowly increased until the doctor is satisfied that the laboring mother has progressed sufficiently for childbirth. However, this does not perfectly mimic the natural production of hormones in a woman’s body during labor and may cause complications.
Certain pre-existing conditions or medical histories can cause adverse reactions when Pitocin is used. Women with any of the following risk factors should notify their doctor before using the hormone:
- Genital herpes
- High blood pressure
- Heart rhythm disorder
- History of cervical cancer
- Severe uterine infection
- Previous surgeries (including a C-section) on the cervix or uterus
- History of difficult labor because of a small pelvis
- Pregnancy that is less than 37 weeks
- 5 or more previous pregnancies
The unborn child should be continuously monitored using fetal heart monitoring equipment once labor has been induced. Contractions induced by Pitocin differ from natural contractions in their intensity and duration. Induced contractions may decrease uterine blood flow more than would occur during natural contractions. Since the body may not be ready to deliver, other complications may arise that could increase the odds of needing an emergency Caesarean section.
There are other risks to both baby and mother when Pitocin is used including:
Risks to Mother:
- Increased pain causing need for epidural
- Tetanic (very strong) contractions
- Premature separation of the placenta
- Rupture of the uterus
- Laceration of the cervix
- Post-birth hemorrhage
Risks to Baby:
- Fetal asphyxia
- Neonatal hypoxia
- Physical injury
- Prematurity if the due date is not accurate
Sometimes, doctors or mothers will request the use of Pitocin to speed up processes that would occur naturally if given time. In these cases, both parties should carefully consider the risks of using the hormone. It may be wiser to allow a woman’s body to function at its own pace rather than putting the unborn child at risk for the sake of convenience.
Pitocin’s Link to Cerebral Palsy
When Pitocin is used improperly or when doctors ignore or misread signs of fetal distress, the baby may suffer preventable birth injuries, including those that cause cerebral palsy. When oxygen supply or blood flow to an unborn child is compromised, fetal asphyxia or neonatal hypoxia can result. Both of these conditions have been linked to the development of cerebral palsy. Physical injuries such as placental abruption and rupture of the uterus may also result in cerebral palsy, brain damage or death to the infant.
Making the Decision to Induce
Expecting mothers should discuss all possible birth scenarios with their doctor before their due date. Discuss the risks and benefits of induced labor and develop a birth plan that you, your loved ones, and your medical providers can agree upon. It is much easier to gather information and make educated decisions before your judgment is clouded by adrenalin, medications, and unexpected circumstances.
There are many, many cases of successful deliveries in which Pitocin was used. Unfortunately, there are also many stories of babies who suffered unnecessary, sometimes permanent, injuries because doctors misused the hormone or misread the signs of fetal distress it caused.