The use of nitrous oxide, perhaps better known as “laughing gas,” has been offered for several years by dentists to reduce the anxiety and discomfort in patients undergoing dental procedures. Nitrous oxide is a tasteless, odorless, nonflammable gas, and has been used in countries such as New Zealand, Great Britain, Scandinavia, and Canada for decades for relief of pain during labor.
In the United States, “laughing gas” was not available to pregnant women for relief of pain during labor until recently. As a result of the Food & Drug Administration’s approval for the use of nitrous oxide during labor, many hospitals now offer it as an option to reduce pain while giving birth.
How is nitrous oxide administered to women?
The gas is delivered to a woman in labor by a mask or mouthpiece that contains a blend of half oxygen, half nitrous oxide; the mother holds the mask or mouthpiece in her hand. When she places the mask over her mouth and nose, or the mouthpiece in her mouth, and inhales (breathes in), a valve that is attached to the tank opens. When this valve opens, the mixture of oxygen and nitrous oxide is delivered; that valve closes when the woman exhales (breathes out).
How does laughing gas eliminate pain during labor?
In order for the gas to be effective in relieving the pain caused by contractions, it must be timed correctly. After the gas is inhaled, it takes up to 50 seconds to work. If a woman inhales the mixture when she feels a contraction starting, it may be too late to have any effect on the pain felt during the contraction. To avoid this, it is recommended that the gas is inhaled 30 seconds before a contraction starts. This requires the laboring mother, or her support person, to be aware of how often contractions are occurring.
Is nitrous oxide safe for women in labor?
A safety feature of the use of nitrous oxide during labor is the fact that the laboring mother is in control of the mask or mouthpiece. If she is too drowsy, she will likely not be able to hold them in the correct manner necessary to receive another dose of nitrous oxide. Side effects for a laboring mother include nausea and vomiting.
Nitrous oxide is removed from the body quickly by exhaling; therefore, it does not build up in the mother’s or baby’s system. That aspect of nitrous oxide is well-known. What isn’t so well-known is what effect, if any, nitrous oxide has on a baby’s developing brain.
If you are expecting a baby and interested in this method to control the pain caused from contractions when you are in labor, talk to your physician or midwife about the safety of nitrous oxide for both you and your baby.
Grant, G. (2017). Pharmacologic management of pain during labor and delivery. Retrieved from