Nitrous Oxide During Labor: Pros & Cons
Updated: Aug 26, 2022
If you’re a birth nerd like me, then you may have heard of the show ‘Call the Midwife.’ It became one of my favorites while I had babies, and it was in this show that I was first introduced to “gas and air” as they call it on the show. Some also call it "laughing gas", but its name is nitrous oxide, and it can be used during labor as a pain-relief option.
What is Nitrous Oxide?
Nitrous oxide is a mixture of nitrous oxide and oxygen and is administered by inhalation through a mask. The effects of inhaling nitrous oxide are felt throughout the body. The exact way that nitrous oxide works is not fully understood, but it’s thought that the three main ways it works are that it:
a) inhibits neurotransmitters which cause an anti-anxiety type response
b) encourages the brain to release norepinephrine, which results in pain reduction
c) causes the brain to release dopamine, which helps you feel happy
Overall, it doesn’t actually make the pain less, but it causes you to care less about the pain. So you may still feel all the sensations, but because you feel relaxed and at ease, they may not seem as intense.
Sign me up, right?!
Is Nitrous Oxide Available at Every L&D Hospital in the USA?
Unfortunately, no. While nitrous is super popular in the UK & Europe, it hasn’t gained as much popularity in the USA. That being said, there is likely to be at least one hospital in a metro area that offers it. These hospitals are typically (not always) more “natural” leaning (think: midwives, labor tubs, etc.). If this is something that you’re really interested in using during labor, it may be worth an extra drive to a hospital that offers it. Call around to the labor & delivery units near you and ask them if they have it!
How is Nitrous Oxide Used During Labor?
You can use nitrous oxide throughout your labor. For nitrous to be effective during labor, mom needs to time the inhalation of the gas well with her contractions. It’s recommended to begin using it the minute you feel a contraction begin to build. The effects will leave your body shortly after you remove the mask (and it’s important to remove your mask every so often to breathe), which is why you need to repeatedly put the mask on & off. It’s also recommended that you use a 50/50 mixture of nitrous oxide & oxygen.
What are the Pros of Nitrous Oxide Use During Labor?
There are many benefits of nitrous oxide use during labor:
According to a study that looked at patient satisfaction with nitrous, it works as well as IV opioids in reducing pain (without the negative side effects to baby).
It does not interfere with oxytocin release (which is HUGE).
It doesn’t affect breastfeeding or newborn APGAR scores.
It can be easily stopped if mom doesn’t want it any more, and the effects usually leave the body within five minutes (unlike epidural or IV opioid use).
What are the Cons of Nitrous Oxide Use During Labor?
In general, the use of nitrous during labor is low-risk, but there are some side effects you need to know about.
Sedation or feelings of detachment
Nausea/Vomiting (estimated that 13% of moms experience this)
Mask-phobia from feeling claustrophobic by the mask (est. 5% of moms)
Another con is that mom has to repeatedly lift the mask to her face, which if she’s exhausted may be difficult.
So, What’s the Bottom Line?
Nitrous oxide is one of those things that moms either love or hate. You won’t know until you try it! Everyone has different experiences with nitrous oxide. One mom may have little to no side effects while the other is suuuuper nauseated while using it. But overall, it’s a great option for pain-relief that is low-risk and gives you more control over your movement & level of pain relief.
Comment below and let me know - do you plan on trying it? Do you have any questions?