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Beyond Labor: The Role of Natural and Synthetic Oxytocin in the Transition to Motherhood


  • Aleeca F. Bell CNM, PhD,

    Corresponding author
    • Address correspondence to Aleeca F. Bell, CNM, PhD, Department of Women, Children and Family Health Science, University of Illinois at Chicago, College of Nursing, 845 South Damen, MC 802, Chicago, IL 60466. E-mail:

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  • Elise N. Erickson CNM,

  • C. Sue Carter PhD


Emerging research raises questions that synthetic oxytocin during childbirth may alter the endogenous oxytocin system and influence maternal stress, mood, and behavior. Endogenous oxytocin is a key component in the transition to motherhood, affecting molecular pathways that buffer stress reactivity, support positive mood, and regulate healthy mothering behaviors (including lactation). Synthetic oxytocin is widely used throughout labor and postpartum care in modern birth. Yet research on the implications beyond labor of maternal exposure to perinatal synthetic oxytocin is rare. In this article, we review oxytocin-related biologic pathways and behaviors associated with the transition to motherhood and evidence supporting the need for further research on potential effects of intrapartum oxytocin beyond labor. We include a primer on oxytocin at the molecular level.