FEBRUARY 20, 2011 12:28PM

Laughing Gas Is Making a Comback During Childbirth...

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Why Nitrous Oxide (Laughing Gas) Is Making a Comback During Childbirth...

Being a single woman with no children, I have heard plenty of stories from women who have gone through child birth. Some try to entice you into having a baby, telling you the “magic” of the process, the intensity, the excitement of natural childbirth. Others try to scare the living hell out of you, talking about needles in your spine, the pain being so intense that you wanted to claw the doctor’s eyes out, and doctors circling you like hungry wolves...you get the picture. But, not once have I ever heard of a woman laughing her way through labor...until now.

The federal government is currently reviewing the effectiveness of laughing gas during labor as an alternative to the loathsome looking epidural. (The idea of someone sticking a needle into my spine scares me more than the idea of actually giving birth. But, ask me again if I ever do go into labor and we will revisit this concept then.) Apparently, women did use laughing gas during childbirth many moons ago, but it fell out of favor in the United States, and now, only two hospitals in the whole country (one is Seattle and one in San Francisco) still offer it as a pain-management option during labor.

Commonly used in Canada, Great Britain and other countries, the epidural has replaced nitrous oxide as the U.S’s choice for labor pain relief. An epidural is a medication that blocks pain by seeping through a tube into a space surrounding the spinal cord. It is a very expensive procedure and must be administered by an anesthesiologist. Both nitrous oxide and an epidural are both covered by insurance, but the epidural is much, much more expensive.

"In this country, most people when they hear about nitrous, they think it sounds pretty retro, that it sounds very old-fashioned and they're sure there's something bad or dangerous about it and we must've chosen to eliminate it. But I think we eliminated it because we went for the more specialized, higher-tech options," states Judith Bishop, a certified nurse midwife at the University of California San Francisco Medical Center. She leads the effort in reintroducing laughing gas during labor.

While Bishop realizes that nitrous oxide doesn’t eliminate all pain during labor, it does help to “take the edge off”. Bishop believes that the option should be offered, especially for women giving birth in small hospitals or in rural areas. It is easy for women to self-administer laughing gas, it can be used late into labor, and-best part-it takes effect quickly.

Lori Rowell, 36, from Concord, due in June with her second child, is definitely interested in the possibility of using nitrous oxide in place of an epidural.

“I would definitely think about it, and read about and talk to my doctor about it. It’s nice to know that it doesn’t affect the baby, because that’s what scares me about an epidural.”

Suzanne Serat, nurse midwife at Darmouth-Hitchcock, where new equipment for delivering nitrous oxide is available this April, believes that 10-20 percent of her moms-to-be might give nitrous oxide a try.

"We have a number of people who don't want to feel the pain of labor, and nitrous oxide would not be a good option for them. They really need an epidural, and that's perfect for them. Then we have a number of people who are going to wait and see what happens, and when they're in labor, decide they'd like something and then the only option for them is an epidural but they don't need something that strong. So, they would choose to use something in the middle, but we just don't have anything in the middle."

Sounds like laughing gas may be just what the doctor ordered. The federal Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality is reviewing the effectiveness and safety of nitrous oxide and we shall see what happens. Not only is this a safer choice for mom and baby, but it is also a cheaper alternative to other expensive forms of labor pain relief, which is a win for insurance companies, too. Who knew labor could produce such laughs?


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