Laughing Gas For Labor Pain…And Why Not?


Nitrous Oxide, AKA Laughing Gas, is a common pain relief option for birthing women in Europe, where it is known as “Gas and Air”. Nitrous oxide is inhaled with a mask. The gas is generally used at the onset of a contraction and does not affect the newborn in the way that narcotic pain relievers can, because the drug flows in and out of the system quickly and has a very short half-life.

Ok,  so Nitrous Oxide is considered an effective form of pain relief around the world, and babies born to mothers who use Nitrous Oxide for pain relief are in better shape than babies born to mothers who use narcotics for pain relief.

So why can’t we get Nitrous Oxide for birthing pain here?

It’s hard to get a straight answer about this, because no one really seems to know. The best guess experts are willing to come up with at this point is that Nitrous Oxide simply fell out of fashion. As we developed new pain relief technologies—ie, the Epidural—that allowed for total pain blockage, an intermittent pain relief option seemed outdated and inconvenient. But I’d venture a few more controversial theories on why Nitrous Oxide isn’t used for childbirth, or for much of anything anymore.

1. Nitrous Oxide is expensive to administer. Gas tanks are large and unwieldy to store. Nitrous is flammable and requires special storage facilities. It also requires different kind of management throughout administration.

2. Nitrous Oxide is unpredictable. Epidurals are too, but in a different way. Where an epidural can immobilize a woman, laughing gas has more psychotropic effects…which can perhaps be unwieldy in an undesirable way.

I also think that the phase out of nitrous oxide is a function of the idea of childbirth as a medical, often surgical procedure. If we see it this way, it makes sense that women would think about blocking the pain completely rather than trying to manage it throughout the process. Still, I’ve always wondered why this seemingly ideal bridge between the total body numbing of epidural pain relief and the ascetic medication free childbirth can’t be made available here. Apparently, I’m not the only one. Nitrous Oxide is gaining ground in the midwifery community, and is now available in three U.S. hospitals and counting.

You can read more about the Nitrous in Chilbirth Revival here.

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