Pitocin vs. Oxytocin: 5 Important Ways They’re Different

Heather Dessinger

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oxytocin bonding hormone

Inside: Five differences between oxytocin and its synthetic version – Pitocin – that may affect how we experience labor, birth, and bonding.

We often call it The Love Hormone, but did you know that oxytocin literally means “quick birth”? Yep, it’s true. (1)

Although we later discovered that it does a lot of beautiful things – strengthen emotional bonds, facilitate trust and reduce the effects of stress, for example – oxytocin was named when the only thing we really understood about it was that it’s essential for birth.

Now, chemically speaking oxytocin and its synthetic equivalent – Pitocin – are identical. You’d think that their effects would are identical, too, but actually that’s not the case. There is some overlap, but there are also huge differences.

The Difference Between Oxytocin and Pitocin

Let’s start with what they have in common: Both oxytocin and Pitocin stimulate contractions during labor and get mama’s milk flowing after the baby is born.

Oxytocin also helps the uterus contract after birth and controls bleeding. Pitocin is sometimes used to control bleeding as well, however it’s important to note that when Pitocin is given before the third stage of labor (for example, maybe it was given earlier to induce or augment labor), it actually increases the risk of postpartum hemorrhage.

We’ll discuss why below, along with five differences between oxytocin and Pitocin that may affect how we experience labor, birth, and bonding:

oxytocin endorphins birth

1. Oxytocin Triggers The Endorphin Effect

Birth is intense. Understatement of the year, right? Fortunately, our bodies help us through it by producing beta-endorphins, which are 18 to 33 times more potent than morphine. (2)

Here’s how it works: When our cranks up oxytocin production in order to intensify contractions, it funnels it into two types of cells. The large cells (magnocellular neurons) flow into the bloodstream, and the small cells (parvocellular neurons) flow into the brain. (3) When oxytocin flows to the brain, a message is sent to the pituitary to increase beta-endorphins as well. This is called The Endorphin Effect, and it’s our bodies way of managing pain naturally.

Unfortunately, when Pitocin is administered via IV it pretty much stays in the bloodstream. In order to get it flow to the brain in meaningful amounts you have to be pretty intentional – either by administering it nasally (because the blood-brain barrier is weaker near the nasal mucosa) or intracerebroventricularly.

Without oxytocin flowing to the brain, the message never gets sent to the pituitary to release beta-endorphins. (3) The pain is fully experienced, but one of the the body’s most powerful coping mechanisms stays dormant.

2. Pitocin Increases The Chance of Needing Other Interventions

Like our breath and our heartbeat, oxytocin has a natural rhythm that pulses throughout our bodies. The ebb and flow creates a rest period between surging contractions, allowing them to be more effective while giving us a little break in-between. The frequency of the pulses increases as labor progresses, usually culminating somewhere around 90 second intervals. (3)

Pitocin, when used to induce labor, tends to create “jackhammer contractions” because it is administered via a continuous drip IV that does not simulate the pulse of natural oxytocin production. These intense contractions can overstimulate the uterus, stress the baby and require interventions such as a cesarean.

Augmented contractions during labor may also exhaust the uterus to the point that it is unable to contract properly after birth, therefore increasing the risk of hemorrhage.

Evidence suggests that women who receive Pitocin have increased risk of postpartum hemorrhage, which is likely due to the prolonged exposure to non-pulsed oxytocin. This makes the oxytocin receptors in her uterus insensitive to oxytocin (“oxytocin resistance”) and her own postpartum oxytocin release ineffective in preventing hemorrhage after birth.” (4)(5)

Mothers who have labored with and without Pitocin usually report that contractions augmented by Pitocin are much more painful, which may be due to increased intensity of contractions and low levels of beta-endorphins.

oxytocin labor

3. Oxytocin Flows Only When The Cervix Is Ready

You’ve heard about the “Fight or Flight” response triggered by cortisol, but have you heard of it’s opposite – the “Calm and Connection” response triggered by oxytocin?

Although it’s not as well-known, it facilitates bonding, trust, stress relief and  . . . softening of the cervix. Yep, oxytocin – along with other hormones – “contributes to the relaxation of the cervix and thereby to the opening of the birth canal.” (3)

When contractions start flowing naturally, you know it’s because the cervix is ready.

Pitocin, on the other hand, doesn’t contribute to softening in the same way before contractions start picking up. If it’s used in the absence of a ripe or favorable cervix, the chance of needing a cesarean increases significantly. (6)

Why is Pitocin less effective at dilating the cervix than naturally occurring oxytocin? We don’t fully understand the process of dilation, but some experts believe that it’s a result of oxytocin in the bloodstream (which stimulates contractions to help open the cervix) working with oxytocin in the brain (which may orchestrate the flow of other processes that help with dilation just like it triggers beta-endorphins to help with pain).

We do know that pain can activate the fight or flight response, which can cause the the inner uterine muscles (which are horizontal) to work against the outer uterine muscles (which are vertical).

When oxytocin flows to the brain, it activates the calm and connection response (along with beta-endorphins for pain) to help relax the cervix. When that happens, the outer and inner muscles work in harmony to open.

4. Oxytocin Peaks

Just before a baby is born the mama’s production of oxytocin peaks, flooding her system with the love hormone. There are several benefits to this surge, which unfortunately doesn’t occur with synthetic Pitocin. (Remember, it’s a constant-drip IV.)

1. The peak can sometimes trigger the Ferguson Reflex, also called the fetal ejection reflex, in which the baby is born easily and quickly without voluntary pushing from the mother. (I experienced this with one of my three births.)

2. The extra oxytocin sends signals for the uterus to contract and release the placenta, which is needed to prevent excessive blood loss. (One risk with Pitocin is that it sometimes exhausts the uterus to the point that it cannot contract well at this point, thus increasing the risk of hemorrhaging.)

3. Best of all, the “Love Hormone” remains very high during the first hour after birth, which allows mama to bond with her baby. Later in this post we’ll discuss ways to keep the oxytocin flowing after that.

oxytocin bonding birth

5. Oxytocin Acts As “The Bonding Hormone”

Every mama who has ever inhaled the sweet smell of her baby knows the power of oxytocin, which is particularly active in the days and weeks after a baby is born.

During the first hour after birth, which is often called the Golden Hour, mama and baby are primed to bond with each other. High levels of oxytocin heighten the mother’s senses, causing her to relish her baby’s sweet scent, cries and tiny fingers.

Babies also release oxytocin during this time and begin to recognize the unique scent of mama’s breast milk. (7) Over the days and weeks, the bond continues to deepen, and by three months mama and baby can synchronize their heartbeats just by smiling at each other.

Unfortunately, the amount of oxytocin a mama secretes in the days following birth is reduced when Pitocin is used during labor. This study found that the higher the dose of Pitocin, the lower the production of natural oxytocin. On the flipside, a very small amount of Pitocin – sometimes called a “hit of Pit” – has a much smaller impact.

Two important notes: First, if for whatever reason Pitocin is needed or the first hour of birth isn’t all about snuggling and bonding, there are ways to increase oxytocin naturally after baby is born. More later in this post.

Second, every birth is unique and every mama and baby bond on their own schedule in their own way. If you don’t feel a deep connection right away, that’s okay. As my friend Genevieve, author of The Mama Natural Week-by-Week Guide to Pregnancy and Childbirth, writes:

here’s something else you won’t hear many mamas admit to: for some women, that all-encompassing, I-would-die-for-you kind of love just doesn’t kick in right away. It may take days (or even a few short weeks) before the floodgates open. And that’s fine, too.”

What are the benefits of Pitocin?

It’s important to point out that Pitocin does have its uses. When administered conservatively, it can give a woman whose labor has stalled just the boost she needs. It may even prevent the need for additional, more invasive interventions.” – Genevieve Howland, The Mama Natural Week-by-Week Guide to Pregnancy and Childbirth 

When medically necessary, Pitocin can improve outcomes for mama and baby. In addition to helping in the way Genevieve describes above, there are times when induction is necessary due to preeclampsia, low amniotic fluid, or another reason.

There are also times where it can be helpful for controlling bleeding after birth, which is why many midwives carry it in their birth kits.

Is it possible to boost oxytocin naturally?

Yes, there are many ways to optimize the production of oxytocin before, during and after baby is born. Post coming soon!

mama natural birth class

Want to learn how to have an awesome birth without leaving your couch?

If you’re looking for an evidence-based, naturally-minded resource, I highly recommend the Mama Natural Birth Course and/or The Mama Natural Week-by-Week Guide to Pregnancy and Childbirth.

You’ll learn about:

  • Delayed cord clamping, which boosts baby’s iron stores by 30% and improves fine motor skills and social development later in life.
  • Skin-to-skin contact, which regulates baby’s body temperature and blood pressure, reduces stress hormones, and helps initiate early breastfeeding.
  • Gentle cesarean, which can “seed” baby’s microbiome, eliminate fluids from baby’s lungs, while empowering the mama.
  • The importance of eating during labor, and so much more. 

Click here to check out the Mama Natural Birth Course, and here to check out The Mama Natural Week-by-Week Guide to Pregnancy and Childbirth.

Citations for this article:

1. Oxytocin is derived from two Greek words – oxus and tokos – which mean quick childbirth.

2. Loh, H et. al. (1976) Beta-endorphin is a potent analgesic agent. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC430793/

3. Uvnas-Moberg, Kerstin. (2016) Oxytocin: The Biological Guide To Motherhood

4. Kresser, Chris. (2011) Natural childbirth VI: Pitocin side effects and risks. Retrieved from https://chriskresser.com/natural-childbirth-vi-pitocin-side-effects-and-risks/

5. Mansy, Amr. (2017) Does Labor Augmentation with Oxytocin Increase the Risk of Postpartum
Hemorrhage? A Randomized Controlled Trial. Retrieved from https://www.longdom.org/open-access/does-labor-augmentation-with-oxytocin-increase-the-risk-of-postpartumhemorrhage-a-randomized-controlled-trial-2090-7214-1000268.pdf

6. Ezebialu, Ifeanyichukw.(2105) Methods for assessing pre-induction cervical ripening. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4473357/

7. Nshitani, S. The calming effect of a maternal breast milk odor on the human newborn infant. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19010360

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Heather is a holistic health educator, herbalist, DIYer, Lyme and mold warrior. Since founding Mommypotamus.com in 2009, Heather has been taking complicated health research and making it easy to understand. She shares tested natural recipes and herbal remedies with millions of naturally minded mamas around the world. 

Leave a Comment

23 thoughts on “Pitocin vs. Oxytocin: 5 Important Ways They’re Different”

  1. I’d like to see more info about #3. I have 3 kids and have done everything I can to be as natural as possible in my pregnancy, childbirth, and child rearing, but I’m not sure I understand the reasoning or science behind #3.

  2. This looks like an informative DVD. I just had a baby 5 weeks ago so it’s a little late for me! Thankfully, I have Nourished Baby to refer to.
    I’m REALLY looking forward to your Fukushima post…I’ve been doing a ton of reading on it and am interested to see what you’ve found.

  3. I cannot wait to read the Fukushima post! I’m soooo lost and confused and get conflicting information everywhere I turn. My daughter eats seaweed ALL THE TIME, and I’m seriously concerned at this point 🙁

    If it’s not one thing, it’s another. 🙁

  4. I think I’m missing something. How can it not produce the love/feely reaction when in labor, but does post-partum? If it bypasses the brain during labor, wouldn’t it do the same post-partum?

    • She was saying that pitocin does NOT promote happy loving feelings after birth like natural oxytocin but pitocin is effective in preventing or treating postpartum hemorrhage. That’s why midwives carry it.

    • Sarah,
      Pitocin in does not cross into the brain at any time. Heather stated it will help with post partum hemorrhage, not with bonding or emotional well being. For that “my baby is perfect” feeling you need oxytocin that your body made. Women who are given Pitocin during labor often suffer from poor maternal bonding due to Pitocin suppressing native oxytocin.
      Hope that clears things up!

    • I read it to mean that it doesn’t produce the lovey feelings at all (during labour or post-partum), but it WILL help reduce the likelihood of hemorrhaging.

      • Yes, that’s right. Pitocin can help prevent hemorrhaging after labor, but it will not cross into the brain and act as a “love hormone” in the way that oxytocin does.

      • Sydney, as Heather confirmed- that is correct. Maybe you’re thinking that post-partum Pitocin use for preventing hemorrhage will interfere with the love response if used, but that isn’t true. Once the baby is born the natural oxytocin is present and doing all the “love stuff”, but the extra Pitocin is used for the physical need of contracting a uterus in the case of uterin atony. Pitocin used to contract the uterus during labor will interfere with oxytocin production.

  5. Pitocin is evil! I can’t agree enough about pit contractions being worse than natural ones! With my first my water broke and try as we might, we could NOT get contractions going…so eventually we gave in and I had pitocin, but NO pain meds/epidural. I thought I was going to die…or at least pass out during transition. I was so exhausted I told my husband at one point “they are going to have to cut him out of me, I have no energy left to push!” Thankfully, my Bradley trained husband talked me down and I birthed my son vaginally…but my post birth experience was a haze. I was shaky and pale and ended up with some serious complications. Fast forward 22 months to my second birth…contractions started naturally and then my water broke. I labored at home for a long while then went to the hospital…they were about to send me home bc they said my water hadn’t broken (um, yeah it did!) and I must not have appeared to be in labor. Thankfully they checked me first because I was a 7! A 7! And I was about to be sent home bc they didn’t believe I was in labor. Transition was NOTHING compared to my pit experience, and I have the most beautiful post birth memories of my second son. All that to say…pitocin is EVIL!!!

  6. For those confused by #3, pitocin can be useful *after* labor to prevent hemmorhaging (spelling?!). It probably helps a quick passage of the placenta. I have heard of this before 🙂 Oxytocin will cause uterine contractions too that help reduce the size of the uterus faster after labor and during nursing sessions. God designed our bodies perfectly!!

  7. I also couldn’t agree more with the severity of pitocin contractions. I had one labor induced due to pre-eclampsia. It was horrific from beginning to end and I ended up with an epidural. My natural delivery began with spontaneous rupture of membranes followed by 16 hours of natural labor. It was completely manageable with no interventions. Transition was a little rough, but isn’t it always.

  8. Hi Heather,
    In your opinion is this dvd course a suitable substitute for an in person childbirth education course? My instincts say it’s probably better than many typical CBE courses especially for someone (like myself) who is interested in a no or low intervention natural home birth. Just wondering if you feel this covers everything for a novice. Thanks so much!

    • Hi Hannah, I happen to have several close friends who are midwives and birth educators – their classes ROCK!! However, I think classes in general are hit or miss depending on the overall philosophy of the educator. The overall philosophy of this film is very consistent with mine (though it can seem a bit judgy at times and I don’t really share that perspective) – I definitely recommend it as a basic course. The only thing I learned in my birth class that wasn’t covered as much here was the nitty gritty on birth positions. A little research on spinningbabies.com and a talk with your midwife/doula can act as a supplement, though.

  9. Hi Heather!

    So glad you are putting info out there for mama’s to be! I wish I’d had this info when I had each of my children. With my first baby, my water broke and they screwed up the lab tests and said it wasn’t my water and sent my home for 2 days while I continued to leak water. When my body didn’t go into labor on its own, the only option they gave me was pitocin. I didn’t know any better, so I went with it. Sadly, with all 3 of my kids my body never seemed to want to kick into gear–at least as far as the doctor was concerned. It’s a bit late for me now, but I am glad to see the info being put out there for expecting mothers. Keep up the good work!

    I’m looking forward to the Fukushima post as we’ll. I’m anxious to see what you find.

  10. I had to have pitocin after both natural births due to my placenta hanging on for dear life. Both times baby was placed on my tummy; both times I started nursing right away. Is there a better alternative or a way to avoid this for number 3? I am due in three months and would love to find a way to cut down on the bleeding without the postpartum IV help.

    • I’m in the same boat- hemorrhage after both births and needed Pitocin. I’m pregnant with #3 now and planning for my home birth but a little worried. My midwife told me I HAD to become a psycho-religious consumer of Red Raspberry Leaf tea or capsules this time around. It is one of the only things proven to get the uterus to contract and let go of the placenta. I’m already having it as often as possible, but I’m planning to drink it exclusively during labor.

      • I will definitely try it. I did see that post on here for the recipe Heather used. I am just starting my third trimester so it should be perfect timing. You are brave to have a home birth. I would love to do that, but my hemoraghing has been so bad with the other two I almost needed a transfusion. While I will definitely labor at home as long as I can I wouldn’t want to worry my hubby if something went wrong in that way. The first time really scared him since I blacked out after birth. Good luck to you and thanks for the suggestion!

  11. Great article, and I love the references! Thanks for sharing on FaceBook, I’m slowly catching up with your posts, wish I had found you sooner.
    I’m pregnant with my third and had to be induced with my first two kids, both two weeks after my due date. The docs didn’t give me a choice to wait a little longer even thought there were no signs of postmaturity. I wound up with an epidural with the first one after five hours of pitocin labor. I have high pain tolerance but I couldn’t take it. The pain was out of this world, with no breaks, triple peaks and seconds of rest in between. With the second child, I tried to resist induction but the doc said I could be discharged from their care for non-compliance.. ??? … I got the smallest dose, refused epidural and IV fluids; the baby came quickly, and got Apgar score of 9, which the nurses told me they barely ever saw. Again, the baby had no signs of post term delivery. I kept thinking if I just waited a little longer, I could have given birth on my own.
    This time I’m determined to tell the doc to take a hike and discharge me if they insist on induction, I am not doing it. I like the idea of acupuncture, will definitely give it a try if I start going over the term. I tried everything else under the sun to induce labor with my first two babies, to no avail. If you have any ‘secrets’ – I’d love to hear them 🙂

    • Congratulations, Valeria! My little ones tend to like to stay put as well. My daughter was born on the last day of week 42, and my son was born at 41.5 weeks. Babypotamus #3’s “due date” was a little fuzzy, but he was definitely past 41 weeks as well. Newer research indicates that this variation is not due to getting the due date wrong. Rather, gestation times can vary by up to five weeks. http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/08/130806203327.htm

      I think this is new info that is just getting out, and some patients may find they have to educate their doctors about it. Of course, I get why doctors are so rigid – they have the highest malpractice insurance rates and don’t want them to go up. In many ways it’s a broken system. All that to say, you may find this article on acupressure helpful 🙂 https://mommypotamus.com/how-to-induce-labor-with-acupressure/

  12. When you describe oxytocin in rhythms and beats I think about the body’s biorhythms and the natural balance that can be easily disrupted by synthetic alternatives. I believe there is not enough emphasis on the body’s subtle energies in modern medicine.