Nitrous Oxide and Birth: No Laughing Matter

September 15, 2023

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If you’re planning to deliver in the midwifery suites at the Family Birth Place, you may be wondering about nitrous oxide as method of pain relief. Also known as “laughing gas,” nitrous oxide is no joke. It can take the edge off labor pains to help you cope with an unmedicated delivery.

What is nitrous oxide and how is it used to relieve labor pains?

Nitrous oxide is a tasteless, odorless gas that is blended with oxygen to make a 50/50 ratio that, when inhaled, usually decreases the sensation of pain and anxiety. It is commonly used in dental offices and operating rooms as well as on labor and delivery units.

The gas is delivered through a mask you hold and place over your nose and mouth only when you want to inhale. You’re free to talk with your birth partner and care team between uses.

“The amount of pain relief provided by nitrous oxide varies from person to person,” says Catherine Schaefer, certified nurse-midwife. “It may just ‘take the edge off’ a contraction, or it may provide more noticeable pain relief and relieve anxiety. For some, it doesn’t noticeably reduce the pain but does help you cope with the intensity at the peak of a contraction.”

Side effects of nitrous oxide

Catherine says you don’t have to worry about side effects impacting your labor or baby.

“Nitrous oxide doesn’t slow labor progression, and there is no evidence that it negatively affects a newborn’s blood gas levels,” she says. “Baby’s lungs will clear out the gas in about three minutes after birth.”

That said, you may feel dizzy or lightheaded while using the gas or nauseated if you use it for longer periods of time. Some people experience a dry mouth and throat.

Inhaling too much nitrous oxide can make you to temporarily faint or pass out, which is why you’ll be instructed to hold the mask yourself. If you get dizzy, your hand drift will away from your face so you naturally stop inhaling the gas.

Most side effects go away quickly after you stop inhaling from the mask.

Should I give nitrous oxide a try?

While you may not know exactly how you’ll feel during labor, your midwife can help you decide whether to add nitrous oxide to your birth plan and teach you how to use it.

“Our goal is to help you cope with labor in a way that’s most effective for you,” says Catherine. “For many patients, nitrous oxide provides just enough relief to get them through the toughest phases of labor.”

Even though some patients find nitrous oxide helpful, others don’t like the way it makes them feel. “If you’re not benefitting from nitrous oxide, it will clear from your system within minutes,” Catherine adds. “It’s a great option to try, whether you’re delivering in the midwifery suites or the standard labor and delivery rooms, but you can stop at any time.”

Take time at your next appointment to talk with your midwife about nitrous oxide and decide together which pain management plan works best for you.