New preliminary research raises concerns that Pitocin, a synthetic branded version of the natural hormone oxytocin that is commonly used to induce pregnant woman into labor, may not be as safe for newborn babies as previously assumed.  

The study finds a link between Pitocin-induced infant deliveries and adverse short-term health effects like lower Apgar scores, which test a newborn's physical condition immediately after birth.

Researchers say that the study, presented by Dr. Michael S. Tsimis on May 7 at the 2013 conference of The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists in New Orleans, is the first to analyze data on Pitocin's side effects on newborn babies.

"As a community of practitioners, we know the adverse effects of Pitocin from the maternal side," said Tsimis in a news release, "but much less so from the neonatal side."

Dr. Tsimis led researchers at Beth Israel Medical Center in New York City in a retrospective analysis of 3,000 full-term infant deliveries that were induced or augmented with Pitocin from 2009 to 2011.

They correlated the use of Pitocin with incidences of events on the Adverse Outcome Index, which measures unexpected outcomes around the childbirth period like maternal and neonatal death rates, birth trauma, blood transfusions, and neonatal ICU admissions.

Analysis indicated that inducing labor with Pitocin was linked to a higher likelihood of a newborn's unexpected admission to the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) for over 24 hours, and was also a significant risk factor for Apgar scores of less than 7 at five minutes.

Apgar scores evaluate babies' health at one and five minutes after birth based on indicators like skin coloration, heart rate, grimace response, muscle tone, and breathing rate. While a score of 8 to 10 is a good sign, scores less than 7 indicate that the baby needs medical attention.

The Apgar is not predictive of future health problems, but newborns with lower Apgar scores may need immediate treatment like oxygen or physical stimulation to promote healthy heart rate.

"These results suggest that Pitocin use is associated with adverse effects on neonatal outcomes," said Dr. Tsimis in the news release.

Oxytocin is a vital natural hormone, flooding an expectant mother's body to promote uterine contractions during the process of childbirth.

Pitocin, a synthetic form of oxytocin that is intravenously delivered to pregnant women, is meant to induce labor when they are overdue. It can also augment difficult labor by strengthening and speeding up uterine contractions, and reduce excessive blood loss after vaginal birth.

Common side effects of Pitocin for mothers include irritation at the injection site, appetite loss, nausea, vomiting, and cramping.

While suggestive, Dr. Tsimis's findings about Pitocin are inconclusive about what caused the babies' higher risk of NICU admissions and lower Apgar scores.

Dr. Christopher Colby, chair of the division of neonatal medicine at the Mayo Clinic Children's Center, told the Huffington Post that the study is not definitive enough to offer conclusions about Pitocin's safety for newborns.

"These findings could be explained if oxytocin was being used more commonly to deliver babies at earlier gestational ages or if the unborn baby was experiencing distress in utero," he explained.

A 2011 review of Pitocin deliveries found that the drug has no side effects for mothers or babies, and was generally effective in shortening labor.

At the New Orleans conference, Dr. Tsimis said that his findings are not strong enough to discourage Pitocin as a method of inducing labor.

Still, he suggests that more research is warranted to examine the risk of Pitocin's side effects for newborn babies and define a much more systematic and informed process for determining when it is medically necessary to induce labor.