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More on Synthetic Oxytocin

March 2016

Early this month, I posted some information about synthetic oxytocin (synOT) and possible effects on lactation.  The latest issue of BIRTH published a very interesting study about continued effects which suggests some startling long-range problems.  Among those listed is this:  "Women who were exclusively breastfeeding at 2 months postpartum had received significantly less synOT compared with their non-exclusively breastfeeding counterparts."  The authors explain possible mechanisms for this result, saying "after administration, synOT may activate positive feedback mechanisms, whereby receptors in the body binding to synOT respond to this influx by signaling for an increase in the production of circulating oxytocin, resulting in the persistently high levels observed months after parturition."

 girl mother


Another possible action, "that exposure to synOT 'resets' the natural oxytocin system to a higher basal level, to better respond to the body's need." They go on to say, "It is reasonable to conclude that...there is a lasting influence of synOT on exclusive breastfeeding [which] may exist through the infant." Synthetic oxytocin passes through the placenta; infants exposed to synOT show fewer pre-feeding cues that those without exposure during labor. Findings that synOT inhibits infant suckling, when combined to the reduction in feeding cues, could provide greater breastfeeding difficulties, resulting in the choice to add artificial infant milk to the breastfeeding process or to wean prematurely.

Keep in mind that this particular study was limited in number (n=386), and is correlational in design. No control for labor-associated variables, such as duration of labor or oxytocin levels prior to the administration of synOT, were provided. The authors, though, strongly recommend that further research in this area is needed.

Professionally and personally, I find these results a bit concerning. What do we really know...and what do laboring mothers know...about the short and long-term effects of what we put into the maternal and infant bodies? Those mothers trust that we, as healthcare professionals, are looking out for their health and welfare. I look forward to seeing more research results in the future to help clarify this issue.


Kathy Parkes, MSN-Ed, BSPsy, RN, IBCLC, RLC, FILCA
Professional Development Educator, Step2Education International



Gu, V., Feeley, N., Gold, I., Hayton, B., Robins, S., Mackinnon, A., Samuel, S., Carter, S., and Zelkowitz, P.  (2016).  Intrapartum synthetic oxytocin and its effects on maternal well-being at 2 months postpartum.  BIRTH; 43(1):28.

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