Here in the United States, we have few options when it comes to pain relief during labor; the most well-known are epidurals, which leave you with no feeling whatsoever below the waist, and no medication at all, which leaves you riding the pain stallion until that baby is out. Now some hospitals are offering another choice: nitrous oxide, better known as laughing gas.
For many of us, laughing gas is that thing they give you at the dentist’s office, and those of us who have had it remember it as a downright delightful experience. It was used by women in the U.S. to ease the pain of labor until the early 1900s when they learned that they could just be knocked the hell out for the whole thing and decided to go with that instead. But women in Europe have continued to use laughing gas during childbirth, and with more American women becoming interested in using as little medication as possible in labor, laughing gas is starting to make a comeback.
Laughing gas offers women a middle ground between getting an epidural and going without pain meds. Instead of completely blocking the pain the way an epidural does, nitrous oxide just takes the edge off it. In an interview with Self, Dr. Jacques Moritz of New York-Presbyterian and Weill Cornell Medical Center described the effect as going from a 10 to a 6 instead of a 10 to a 0, which is what epidurals do.
(Note that, of course, this is just for vaginal births and not for C-sections, because girl, please.)
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Laughing gas is delivered through an oxygen mask that the patient can administer herself. Once the pain starts to build during a contraction, the mother can take a few breaths of gas and then stop once she feels the effects. The gas then leaves the system after just a few seconds. It’s the perfect solution for those moms who want to feel something and remain more involved in childbirth, but who don’t want to feel the soul-crushing level of pain that can come with contractions.
Though hundreds of hospitals and birth centers are now offering laughing gas, the American Society of Anesthesiologists believes that more research needs to be done into the use of laughing gas in labor since the little research we have on it is decades old. That’s a fair point, but it’s been widely used in Europe for some time now, and there is already some evidence that the risks are minimal. It’s also important to point out that an increased use of laughing gas would mean a decreased use of anesthesiologists, but that’s none of our business.
The use of nitrous oxide during labor appears to be a middle-of-the-road option for those women who don’t want epidurals but also want to be able to control the amount of pain they experience. Women shouldn’t have to choose between all or nothing — the more choices we have when it comes to what happens to our bodies, especially when it comes to an intense, life-changing experience like childbirth, the better it is for all of us.