A growing number of mothers in the United States are choosing "laughing gas" — a mix of oxygen and nitrous oxide commonly associated with dental procedures — instead of an epidural to deal with pain during childbirth.
Historically, birth has occurred with little to no medical intervention. Before the advent of epidurals in the 1930s, it was common for doctors in the U.S. to administer nitrous oxide during labor and delivery.
While the practice has remained popular in places like the United Kingdom and Australia, it fell out of favor in the U.S. once epidurals gained popularity. In recent years, more mothers are opting for natural birthing experiences, preferring less invasive medical treatment and a holistic approach to their prenatal and postnatal care.
"Women want choices in their labor and birth experience," explains Sarah Margerum, clinical nurse educator at Sharp Grossmont Hospital. "Pain is a subjective experience and no one method is a perfect solution universally."
Laughing gas works differently than an epidural because it targets pain more on a mental level than a physical level. Many women report that, although they can still feel the pain, nitrous oxide calmed them down so they could cope with it more naturally.
Safe for mother and baby, during and after labor
When used as recommended, nitrous oxide is safe for the mother and newborn. This technique is appealing for a number of reasons:
- It gives women control over a process that is in many ways out of their control
- Laboring women feel the effect within 30 to 60 seconds, and it leaves the body soon after they stop using it
- It can be used at any time during labor because it does not affect labor progress or the baby
- It does not affect breastfeeding or infant alertness during the early bonding period between mother and newborn
- Nitrous oxide is a good alternative to use with women for whom epidural is not an option
Although there are many benefits of using nitrous oxide during labor, there are some risks to be aware of. Side effects are usually mild and may include sedation, dizziness, nausea or vomiting.
Considering the unique preferences of new moms
There is no one best way to experience labor and birth. Within the realm of safe and effective practices, there are a multitude of options. Holistic care, or care that aims to heal the whole person, is possible when a woman has access to information about her options and is an active member of the care team when decisions need to be made.
Every birth is a miracle, and it is important for mothers to experience childbirth in the way best suited for them. At the core of this are open discussions between mother and caregiver.
"At Sharp Grossmont, we always explore how we can provide a structure of safe, evidence-based care at the center of which is the woman and her family making informed choices about their experience," says Margerum.