Womens Health

Laughing Gas Used for Labor Worldwide, What about US?

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This post was originally published at RH Reality Check, a site of news, community and commentary for reproductive health and justice

Nitrous oxide for labor? Common Health asks why the drug, which is so readily used in other countries, is nowhere to be found in labor and delivery rooms in the United States.

Why don’t women in the U.S. have access to nitrous oxide, a safe, inexpensive and fairly simple option for alleviating pain during labor, when women in almost all other developed countries use it widely?

A small band of midwives, doctors and mothers are trying to find out.

Sure, nitrous oxide (aka laughing gas, like you get in the dentist’s office) doesn’t have the super-pain-relieving magic of an epidural. Instead, it offers something closer to an elixir of dulled pain tempered by nonchalance, says William Camann, chief of obstetric anesthesia at the Brigham & Women’s Hospital and the co-author of the book “Easy Labor.” “The pain may still exist for some women but the gas may create a feeling of, ‘Painful contraction? Who cares?’”

So, while nitrous oxide is used by about 50% of laboring women in the United Kingdom, 60% in Finland and widely in Canada, according to a published review, it’s available only in two U.S. hospitals.


It seems like the major roadblock is just that since we've never used it, it never occurs to the U.S. medical system to try.

However, hospitals do occasionally use laughing gas during births, as I can attest. During my own extended labor we discovered that each epidural "boost" was becoming less effective, including the one that was given to me prior to my emergency c-section. When the final injection wore off during the middle of my surgery, I was given the option of total anesthesia, which I knew would make me unconscious for hours, or the use of laughing gas to get me through the final removal of the placenta and the subsequent sewing up. 

I chose the nitrous oxide, knowing that it meant I would be awake, mostly alert and able to move around more quickly during my post-op recovery. I most definitely felt the pain, but it tempered it enough to get me through surgery, which was all I wanted at that point.

Could laughing gas be a viable option for the actual act of labor?  I'm not sure, but it will be difficult to ever know if we aren't given an option to try it.