A highly sensitive and specific radioimmunoassay (RIA) for oxytocin was developed and used to measure oxytocin concentrations during both suckling and parturition in individual rats. In urethane-anaesthetized rats, the suckling stimuli, provided by ten pups, induced intermittent increases in intramammary pressure of about 10 mmHg. This was associated with a significant (P < 0·01) increase in serum oxytocin levels from 19·5 ± 4·5 (s.e.m., n = 9) to 49·1 ± 7·4 pmol/l (n = 9) in the samples taken within 30 s from the time of the peak in the pressure. These rises in serum oxytocin returned rapidly to the basal levels as expected from the short half-life (1·46 min) of oxytocin in general circulation.
On day 22 or 23 of gestation, serum oxytocin levels remained stable until 0–0·5 h before the first fetus was expelled. They then increased significantly (P < 0·01) from 27·6± 4·6 pmol/l (n = 19) in samples taken 0–0·5 h before to 45·1 ± 5·6 pmol/l in samples taken after the expulsion of the first fetus and gradually increased until the last fetus was expelled. Serum oxytocin concentrations then declined but remained higher than those observed before the first fetus had been born until at least 1–1·5 h after the expulsion of the last fetus. Thus, this oxytocin RIA revealed increased concentrations of the hormone in blood during both suckling and parturition in the rat.