Is there a link between the usage of pitocin, an artificial hormone given to induce or speed up labor, and the rise in autism statistics? Are we causing autism by our use of such drugs in the birth process?
The theory of a link between pitocin and autism is a controversial one, and a rather worrying one, but it is something that needs further research so that we can rule it out or do something about it.
It first entered the public forum when Geoffrey Cowley, a Newsweek reporter, interviewed physician Dr Eric Hollander of New York’s Mount Sinai School of Medicine for an article back in July 2000 (see http://www.newsweek.com/id/85572/page/1 for “Understanding Autism” article). Dr Hollander had made the startling discovery that 60% of his autistic patients had been exposed to pitocin in the womb, when their mothers’ labors had been induced, and said:-
“In some individuals whose oxytocin system could be genetically vulnerable, a strong environmental early hit while the brain is still developing could down-regulate the oxytocin system, leading to developmental problems. But this is only a hypothesis that has been observed by association.”
What is Pitocin?
Pitocin is a synthetic version of oxytocin, a hormone that is naturally produced by a woman’s brain to produce spontaneous labor. When oxytocin is produced in the woman’s body, it triggers uterine contractions which cause the woman’s cervix to dilate and which also propel the baby through the birth canal. When a woman goes past her due date or needs to be induced for some reason, pitocin can be used to artificially induce labor or speed things up.
What is its link to Autism?
An article on Autism Today’s website (see http://www.autismtoday.com/articles/ATTN_Researchers.htm) points out that oxytocin is also produced during breastfeeding and during sexual orgasms, which are both events ” associated with experiences of great emotional bonding and include meaningful social interaction between the individuals involved”. Autism Today wonders if there is therefore a link between a baby being flooded with “this gender-specific synthetic hormone from animals” and autism spectrum disorders where a child may have an inability to bond with others, socialize and make relationships. Does pitocin exposure interfere with psychological functioning? An interesting question.
Another theory linking pitocin and autism is that the drug causes enormous pressure on the baby’s cranium during the birth process, much more than during spontaneous natural labor. New York’s “Naturally” magazine (quoted at http://www.mothering.com/discussions/showthread.php?t=650489) says:-
“Today’s obstetrical practices, notably Pitocin and Epidural can result in compression in the baby’s skull. This occurs because the drugs interfere with the rhythm of birth, which is based on the relationship between expansion and contraction of the plates of the baby’s skull and the expansion and contraction in the mother’s pelvis to enable the baby to pass through the birth canal. With the mother’s rhythm altered by the drugs, the baby’s head is subjected to enormous pressure during birth, which can result in cranial compression. This in turn can put pressure on the brain and cranial nerves, among other effects. Again, the developing nervous system is compromised. One doctor likens birth under these conditions to using the baby’s head as battering ram, with the Pitocin speeding up the birth rhythm. His clinical analysis of his autistic patients revealed that in 60% of the cases Pitocin was used during birth.”
Is there really a link?
The Autism Today article also points out that when a woman is induced with pitocin she is also often given many other drugs and interventions, so can we really say that it is pitocin alone that is a factor in autism? Other drugs and interventions often used alongside pitocin include:-
- Other IV fluids
- Increased electric fetal monitoring causing the woman to be sedentary during her labor.
- Increased chance of the woman being given narcotic pain relievers or an epidural because the labor is more painful.
- Increased chance of assisted delivery (forceps or vacuum extraction)
So, Autism Today asks whether it may actually be a combination of drugs, or a combination of drugs and physical problems, which could be a causative factor for autism, rather than the use of pitocin alone.
A study entitled “Pitocin induction in autistic and nonautistic individuals” by S Gale, S Ozonoff and J Lainhart, examining the rates of labor induction using pitocin, looked at the birth histories of 41 autistic boys and 25 IQ-matched and age-matched boys without autism, and failed to find a link between the use of pitocin and neurodevelopmental abnormalities.
Whatever our thoughts on this, the use of pitocin is climbing, along with autism rates, and its possible link to developmental disorders does warrant further research.
Two decades ago, the former president of the International Federation of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, Roberto Caldreyo-Barcia, MD, stated that “Pitocin is the most abused drug in the world today”, and many feel that in the majority of cases its use just isn’t medically necessary. Perhaps we should only “interfere” with nature when absolutely necessary, when a mother or her child are in danger.
You can read more about the possible link between pitocin and autism at the following sites:-