Laughing Gas As A Way To Manage Labor Pain? Yes, Please!

by Wendy Wisner
Tyler Olson / Shutterstock

No matter how you do it, birthing a baby is going to be one of the most painful, full-body f-you’s that you will ever experience. And because birth can be vastly different for each of us, no one should ever judge how different moms manage their labor pain.

Whether it’s an epidural, a birthing tub, a back rub with essential oils, or few minutes of cursing out everyone in the room and howling like a banshee, you do you. Whatever gets you through, truly.

But whatever you choose, I think we can all agree that having as many options as possible to manage labor pain is vital. And yet, there seems to be one option that most hospitals seem to be lacking: nitrous oxide. Or, as it’s otherwise known: laughing gas.

Wait a second, you might be saying, LAUGHING GAS?! The stuff they use at the dentist? What the heck are you talking about?

Why, yes, I am talking about that same stuff (though when used it labor it is used in different proportions and monitored differently than it is for dental work: more on that soon). It might sound strange, troubling, or completely out of left-field, but the fact is that throughout Europe, nitrous oxide is used on the regular for labor pain—and it appears that’s it’s becoming more popular in the United States as well, especially among midwives.

So let’s get to the burning question that is probably first and foremost on your mind: Is laughing gas safe during labor? Yep, using laughing gas for labor is considered safe. It has been used in Europe for years, and numerous studies (like this one) have been done confirming its safety. In 2011, the American College of Nurse Midwives (ACNM) even released a statement confirming its safety and encouraged more providers to offer it.

Here’s how it works. When used for labor pain management, nitrous oxide is administered using an inhalation mask, and is usually mixed with oxygen in a 50/50% combination that is carefully monitored by hospital medical staff (at the dentist, it is may not be monitored as closely, and the amount of inhaled nitrous oxide is often as high as 70%).

How about the baby? Again, the safety of nitrous oxide during labor has been tested widely, and is not known to have any adverse effects on the baby. As retired nurse midwife and epidemiologist Judith Rooks explains in an article for NPR, nitrous oxide leaves the mother’s body within seconds of inhalation. “It does pass the placenta and go into the fetal circulation, but as soon as the baby takes a breath or two, it’s gone,” Rooks explains.

Now that we’ve gotten all that out of the way, let’s talk about what inhaling this stuff can do for laboring women. It is definitely not the same as an epidural. It doesn’t numb your body, and really only lasts for a few seconds. But what it can do very well is “take the edge off” off the pain. And for some women, this can make all the difference in terms of getting through the most difficult parts of labor.

Amy Marks, a mom from Rhode Island who was able to use nitrous oxide when she gave birth at South County Hospital in South Kingstown, explained to NPR how laughing gas helped her get through her contractions.

“You’re going through the contraction, you’re breathing in and out, maybe do five, six breaths, get to the peak of the contraction, and I kind of didn’t really need any more, I could bear the rest of the contraction,” says Marks. “I was giggly. But only for like 15 to 30 seconds.”

Ummm, I think I could use a little bit of that right now, actually.

Seriously, though, nitrous oxide may not be for everyone, but it sounds like a pretty incredible tool for laboring women to have at their disposal. I know that for me, many of my labor contractions weren’t totally unbearable. There were some clear peaks and valleys, even within the contractions themselves, and I could have definitely used a well-timed break (or giggly high) at certain points.

It should be noted that using laughing gas doesn’t preclude you from getting an epidural, or even a c-section, if that becomes necessary. But for lots of women, it helps them either wait longer for the epidural, or nix it altogether. And delaying or ditching epidurals can have some advantages for the laboring mom because, as awesome as epidurals can be, they also sometimes prolong labor or make the pushing stage last longer, as NPR points out.

And again, more options for laboring women—especially ones that give offer them the possibility of more mobility, fewer interventions, and more autonomy over their bodies—just can’t ever be a bad thing, at least in my book.

Since 2011, the use of laughing gas for labor in the United States has increased, with several hundred hospitals offering it. But Michelle Collins, professor and director of nurse midwifery at Vanderbilt University School of Nursing, wants to see more hospitals offering it, and is working to champion that cause.

To Collins, it’s all about women having more of a say about what happens to their bodies during labor, for them to be in the driver’s seat, and for women to be allowed to have their needs and opinions heard in the delivery room.

“Now women are more informed, and they’re demanding that their voices be heard, which is a really great thing in my book,” Collins tells NPR.

I couldn’t agree more!

So let’s add laughing gas to the menu of pain management choices for laboring mamas—and let’s do it soon. Although there is a lot about birthing a baby that is out of our control, we should all have the opportunity to birth our babies with as much freedom (and pain relief!) as possible, and the more options the better.