More Hospitals Should Offer Laughing Gas to Women in Labor

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Photo: Jochen Sand/Getty Images

Widely used in hospitals for a variety of pain throughout the mid-1800s to the 1950s, nitrous oxide, also known as laughing gas, was supplanted by stronger painkillers and is mostly found in dentists’ offices these days. But according to a new NPR report, that’s slowly changing, and laughing gas is finding growing popularity for its simple, quick, and effective management of the most legendary of pains: labor.

Though more than half of women get epidurals during labor (varying widely by age, with young women most likely to receive one at 64 percent, and women over 40 least likely at 50 percent), an increasing number is forgoing them in favor of giving birth “naturally” (i.e., without pain medication). Though epidurals don’t have adverse effects on mothers and babies, all pain medications carry some risks, and epidurals are commonly thought to slow or even stall labor. The research on that hypothesis isn’t conclusive, but many women attempt childbirth without epidurals these days. But there is an alternative in laughing gas, and it’s being promoted by midwives.

Though not nearly as effective or strong as an epidural, laughing gas can “take the edge off” of pain, and as one midwife told NPR, “It gives you this euphoria that helps you sort of forget about the pain for a little bit.” It is mild, safe, and the gas leaves the body in seconds, with no lasting effect. In fact, it doesn’t even kill pain: It simply relaxes the body and makes the patient care less about it. There are widely available data about its effectiveness and safety because it has been widely used in Europe for childbirth for decades. But up until recently, only a handful of hospitals even had laughing gas on offer for women in labor. The number is growing, and now nearly 300 U.S. hospitals offer it.