Synthetic oxytocin doesn’t raise ADHD, ASD risk

3 minute read

In fact, its usage in women who were obese before falling pregnant reduced the odds of their child developing ADHD by almost a third.

A new study suggests there is no need to change how synthetic oxytocin is used in childbirth.

Synthetic oxytocin is commonly used to help start or speed up labour. There is inconsistent evidence linking the use of synthetic oxytocin to neurodevelopmental outcomes such as ADHD and ASD.

New data from a collection of longitudinal cohort studies, published in the Journal of Neurodevelopmental Disorders, shows intrapartum exposure to synthetic oxytocin was not associated with increased odds of the child developing ADHD or ASD.

Researchers examined over 12,000 mother/child pairs from the Environmental influences on Child Health Outcomes (ECHO) program in the US. Nearly half (48%) of mothers were exposed to synthetic oxytocin during childbirth. Nine percent of children went on to develop ADHD, while 7% developed ASD.

After controlling for factors including maternal age education, obesity and gestational diabetes as well as whether the child was large for gestational age, synthetic oxytocin exposure was not associated with ADHD or ASD. The lack of an association remained when male and female children were analysed separately.

However, there was an interaction between synthetic oxytocin and maternal pre-pregnancy obesity. Synthetic oxytocin reduced the likelihood of ADHD in the child by 28% in mothers who were obese prior to pregnancy compared to obese mothers who did not receive synthetic oxytocin.

No such association was observed between ADHD and synthetic oxytocin in mothers who were not obese before pregnancy, nor for synthetic oxytocin and ASD.

The researchers suggested the protective effect in obese women could partly be explained by confounding factors.

“Mothers with obesity, and diminished uterine contractility, [are] more likely to be delivered promptly by C-section after an initial, possibly non-productive induction using synthetic oxytocin, thereby mitigating fetal exposure to the intense stress of labour that is typically involved in synthetic oxytocin exposure,” they wrote.

“It is also plausible that in obese mothers, synthetic oxytocin augmentation and/or induction of labour may reduce the risk of a prolonged second stage of labour and potentially mitigate the impact of stress to the vulnerable fetal brain.”

A key limitation to the study was that researchers did not have access to information regarding why and how synthetic oxytocin was used as part of the birthing process (e.g., whether it was used to induce or augment labour, how much of it was used, how long the mother was in labour and whether a C-section was performed).

The AIHW reported 44% of selected Australian women giving birth for the first time had an induced labour, although they did not differentiate whether labour was induced chemically (i.e., with synthetic oxytocin or other medications such as prostaglandins) or surgically (by artificially rupturing the uterine membrane).

Journal of Neurodevelopmental Disorders 2024, online May 26

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