Skip to main content

Labor and Laughing Gas

Nitrous oxide mask

Giving birth is no laughing matter. However, it can be made a little easier with the help of nitrous oxide, or laughing gas. It's now being used in Labor & Delivery at University of Utah Health to aid mothers. "Laughing gas is a great option for women who want something to take the edge off but aren't interested in an epidural," said Sara Hake, CNM, a midwife with U of U Health. "They have assistance with labor but not a total loss of sensation and mobility."

As recently as five years ago an epidural was the only real option for American moms in labor. It was an all or nothing experience. Either have all the pain or lose all sensation below the waist as well as the ability to move freely. In the last 30 years, hospitals in the U.S. have started making nitrous oxide an option, giving laboring moms some middle ground. "It's considered an analgesic," said Hake. "It also provides a dissociative reaction so you are aware of the pain but experience it differently and cope with it."

Nitrous oxide differs from epidural in its onset and duration as well. While a single epidural shot can last between six and 24 hours, the effects of nitrous oxide begin to dissipate the moment the patient stops breathing it in and begins breathing in air. "It's great for intermittent use," said Hake. "It begins working within one minute of breathing it in and wears off almost as quickly when it is not in use."

Not only does nitrous oxide give women a new option when it comes to pain relief but it puts them in control of how and when it is used. The gas is self-administered by the patient by placing the mask on her face and breathing in. "A lot of women like it for exactly that reason," said Hake.

The fact women administer the gas to themselves also keeps the amount they use in check. If too much nitrous oxide is inhaled, the patient will start becoming dizzy and disoriented. This will make it hard to hold the mask to her face.

"The best thing about nitrous oxide is that it allows a new mom to be present without feeling overtaken by pain," added Hake. "It gives her a feeling of control over what is happening and lets her concentrate on what's most important—her new baby."