Sometimes a woman needs a little help delivering a child. For whatever reasons, labor may need to begin sooner than expected, last longer, or require stronger contractions to deliver successfully. To speed things along at benefit to both mother and baby, delivery room doctors sometimes turn to a synthetic hormone for help with delivery.
Studies in recent years have hinted at a link between using this synthetic hormone — oxytocin — to induce or augment labor and the incidence of autism in the child. The professional organization of American obstetricians has thoroughly examined the studies and find there is no conclusive evidence linking inducement of labor and autism.
The human body produces oxytocin in the pituitary gland. It's called the love hormone because it blooms when we fall in love and after orgasm. When it's released during labor, it stimulates uterine contractions to expel the baby. After delivery, it helps the woman forget the pain and trauma of childbirth and stimulates the breasts to begin lactation. It encourages bonding between parents and their babies.
Problems with oxytocin have been observed in autistic patients. Functional oxytocin deficiencies have been observed, as have oxytocin signaling pathways that don't function properly. These observations have led to the possibility that inducing labor induces autism but The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) say any possible link has not been established in current medical literature and current guidelines don’t need revision on the issue.
The ACOG issued a committee opinion dated May 2014 after review of recent studies suggesting a link between autism and the use of synthetic oxytocin to induce labor or augment contraction strength. None of the studies have proved a cause-and-effect scenario and, in studies identifying a link, the science is weak:
- Limitations of study design — studies are too small, limited to one demographic, or otherwise exclude a participant pool that represents the general population.
- Retrospective data — analysis of medical records after the fact rather than following specific women and children through labor, childbirth, and beyond autism diagnosis.
- Other influential factors excluded — studies did not account for other factors that have been conclusively linked to autism, relying instead on the administration of synthetic oxytocin to be the only criteria under evaluation.
Labor induction and augmentation often save a woman or her baby from avoidable trauma or injury. The ACOG committee opinion, based on the findings of its Committee on Obstetric Practice, recommends keeping current protocols (counseling guidelines, medical indications, and drug administration procedures) in place until a cause-and-effect link is established.
Source: Committee on Obstetric Practice. "Labor Induction or Augmentation and Autism." ACOG Committee Opinion. American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. May 2014. Web. Apr 29, 2014.