A detailed secretory profile of oxytocin during suckling and parturition was determined in unanaesthetized freely moving rats. Ten pups were reunited with their mothers after 12–15 h of separation. Unless the milk-ejection reflex occurred, there was no difference in serum oxytocin levels before separation and during the suckling of either four or five, or nine or ten pups. Serum oxytocin levels increased abruptly by 50·1 ± 4·2 (s.e.m.) pmol/l (n = 9) at milk ejection, and declined rapidly with a half-life of about 1·5 min. The peak concentration of blood oxytocin at each milk ejection was independent of the previous suckling period; values from the first three milk-ejection reflexes following the introduction of the pups and those observed 3–5 h after introduction were similar. The process of parturition was monitored by recording intra-uterine pressure with a balloon implanted in the uterus. On day 22 or 23 of pregnancy, continuous and rhythmical contractions of the uterus occurred (onset of parturition), but serum levels of oxytocin (21·1 ± 1·9 pmol/l; n = 13) did not alter until the expulsive phase. During the expulsive phase, fetuses were delivered after fetus-expulsion reflexes which were recorded as sudden large increases in intra-uterine pressure. Basal levels of oxytocin in the blood increased during this phase (32·5 ± 4·4 pmol/l; n = 13) and, in addition, rose by about 15 pmol/l and declined slowly after fetus-expulsion reflexes. The increase, however, was quite different from that seen at milk-ejection reflexes.
J. Endocr. (1986) 110, 251–256