Childbirth is painful. Even the most stoic woman will give up any plans for a “natural” delivery when the going gets tough and beg for an epidural analgesic. Drugs are often the only pain relief option offered American women in labor. But in other countries, such as the United Kingdom, taking the edge off for women giving birth is a matter for laughing gas.
The practice of using laughing gas during childbirth is still rarely used in the U.S., but its use is spreading and many are now asking why not regularly use laughing gas, especially when it is widely employed in Europe, Canada and other Western countries. For example, in New Zealand, approximately 70 percent of laboring women opt for gas.
Laughing gas, or nitrous oxide, is actually an even mixture of oxygen and nitrous oxide gas that is self-administered by the user via a mouth tube or face mask when needed. In labor, a woman may use it at the onset of a strong contraction.
The gas works differently than drugs or an epidural. According to experts, it targets pain more on of a mental level than a physical one. So, it can help relax a stressed out women after hours or labor.
There are considerable advantages to using laughing gas when giving birth. First, the gas does not accumulate in the mother’s or baby’s body, so the newborn and mom are not groggy or “hung-over” after delivery. It can be started at any time during labor, versus epidurals and such that cannot be started after a certain point. Women can move around during labor with laughing gas, versus being bedridden when using delivery room drugs. Also, the average cost for a laboring woman using laughing gas is less than $100, whereas an epidural can cost $3,000. More importantly, the gas has a great safety record in U.S. dentists’ offices and in delivery rooms in places like the U.K and New Zealand.
On the down side, nitrous oxide does not alleviate pain as effectively as an epidural, but it is often enough to get by without turning to something narcotic. Women inhaling the gas still feel the pain and intensity of labor, but it calms them down and makes it bearable.
Laughing gas was once popular for childbirth in the U.S., but the development of the epidural in the 1930s (with its greater profit potential) led to the disuse of nitrous oxide.
Nowadays, however, laughing gas is making a comeback in the U.S. More American women are requesting it, particularly those aware of its wide and safe use elsewhere. Furthermore, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration helped fuel the resurgence by approving new self-administrating laughing gas equipment for delivery room use a few years ago.
A decade ago, “less than five or 10 hospitals used it [for women in labor],” according to Dr. William Camann, Boston-area Brigham and Women’s Hospital’s director of obstetric anesthetics. “Now, probably several hundred (are using it). It’s really exploded.” He noted that more hospitals are expressing interest in using nitrous oxide gas to help women make giving birth a “laughing” matter.
By Dyanne Weiss