Nitrous oxide: An old birthing choice for moms is new again

Nitrous oxide is safe, easy to use, reduces pain and reduces anxiety for women delivering babies, but doesn’t knock the patient out.

The latest trend in alternative labor options may give many pregnant women a smile. Nitrous oxide, often referred to as laughing gas, is commonly thought of as a medication used by dentists to help calm patients. Now it’s available to women in labor.

“Nitrous oxide actually was a common staple during deliveries in the 1800s and up until the invention of alternative pain medications and the use of epidurals,” said C. Reed Nett, M.D., OB/GYN with Advocates for Women’s Health, a part of Norton Women’s Care. “The gas is safe to use and relatively simple to use, offering pain relief and decreased anxiety, among other benefits.”

Nitrous oxide is an analgesia, not anesthesia. That means it can reduce pain but does not cause sedation. The mix of 50 percent nitrous (a form of nitrogen) and 50 percent oxygen is recommended by the American Society of Anesthesiologists. Nitrous oxide is breathed in through a mask. The patient must be able to hold the mask herself and acknowledge the nurse to provide consent.

“The mask allows the patient to breathe in the odorless, colorless gas and then exhale back into the mask, preventing the release of nitrous oxide into the room for others to inhale,” Dr. Nett said.

No long-term side effects of nitrous oxide

Dr. Nett said potential side effects of nitrous oxide can include dizziness, nausea and drowsiness. There are no long-term side effects for the mother, baby or staff. Women opting to use nitrous oxide are still able to move about, but may be unsteady on their feet.

A woman in labor choosing nitrous oxide has a nurse focused on her throughout labor and delivery

“Other countries have been using nitrous oxide as an option for expectant mothers for more than 75 years with no ill effects,” Dr. Nett said.

Nitrous oxide doesn’t prevent use of other pain relievers

Patients can get nitrous oxide along with other pain-relieving options, including epidural. There are guidelines in place when a patient is using IV pain medication; however, the patient’s nurse or physician can review those measures when reviewing the patient’s birth plan or at the time of labor.

“If a patient uses nitrous oxide and then decides she wants an epidural, we can fulfill her request. It is about providing her with options,” Dr. Nett said.

The labor and delivery teams at Norton Women’s & Children’s Hospital  offers the use of nitrous oxide for laboring women. Women can discuss the option with an obstetrician or nurse midwife during prenatal visits.


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