A treatment most people associate more with dentists than childbirth has been making its way into delivery rooms. And for many women, it could be the key to the birth experience they’ve been hoping for.
As ABC News reports, nitrous oxide (more commonly known as laughing gas) is commonly used in Europe and other countries to help “take the edge off” during labor. Once popular in the United States, laughing gas was largely replaced by the epidural. In 2011, the FDA approved new nitrous oxide equipment for births, and the use of laughing gas has begun to take off.
Unlike the epidural, laughing gas doesn’t suppress pain so much as it affects the perception of pain. As Dr. William Camman, a specialist in obstetric anesthetics, told ABC News:
“It’s a relatively mild pain reliever that causes immediate feelings of relaxation and helps relieve anxiety. It makes you better able to cope with whatever pain you’re having.”
Laughing gas doesn’t require the presence of an anesthesiologist and the patient can control the inhalations of the gas to fit between contractions for the best effect.
Women who have tried laughing gas during labor note that it isn’t so much about erasing the pain as making it manageable.
“It immediately took my fear away and helped calm me down, though I could still feel the pain,” said Megan Goodoien, who opted for laughing gas 13 hours into an exhausting labor. “I didn’t laugh because the labor was so intense, but everything suddenly felt doable just when I thought I couldn’t make it anymore. It’s definitely a mental thing.”
Because it leaves the body quickly, laughing gas could also be a good option for mothers who hope to avoid the lingering effects of an epidural.
A Tennessee mother who found that using the gas reduced her anxiety, Shauna Zurawski, told ABC News:
“With my first child, I had an epidural, I was numb for so long after the delivery and it took a while to get back to normal,” she said. “But with the nitrous oxide, I was walking around and taking pictures almost right after.”
With so many positives, why have some doctors been slow to embrace the return of laughing gas to the maternity ward? It could be unfamiliarity with its use, concern about grogginess, or being “out of it” during labor.
Midwife Kerry Dixon has an alternate explanation.
“The average cost for a woman opting for nitrous oxide is less than a $100,” Dixon told ABC News, “while an epidural can run up to $3,000 because of extra anesthesia fees.”
As another option for women who are seeking a different way to ease the anxiety and pain of childbirth, the growing popularity of laughing gas in the delivery room may bring about a smile of relief.