Every woman knows, whether she's a mother or not, that childbirth is probably the most painful experience we'll ever have. One could say that being in labor is no laughing matter — until now: A Minnesota birthing center is now offering laughing gas to relieve pain during childbirth. It's a method that's been commonly used by women in other countries for decades, but hospitals in the U.S. have widely shunned laughing gas, or nitrous oxide, as a pain reliever during childbirth. Perhaps it's because breathing in nitrous oxide conjures up images of teens in the parking lot — but according to many medical experts, it's time for the U.S. to give laughing gas serious consideration.
The use of nitrous oxide for women in labor has been making a slow comeback in the U.S., and the latest facility to offer it is the Minnesota Birth Center in Minneapolis. Kerry Dixon, a midwife at the birthing center who used to administer laughing gas to laboring moms in New Zealand, vouches for the pain-relief method, saying that it poses less health risks than other methods like the epidural, or spinal anesthesia. With nitrous oxide, which the mom administers herself, she can remain independent and in control. Dixon told CBS Minnesota:
They're also free to move around so they can be on a birthing ball, sitting in a rocking chair, they can be pacing. Other medications we offer in the United States require them to be in bed.
Jenna White, who was administered the laughing gas at Minnesota Birth Center, agreed, telling CBS:
It’s totally patient controlled. I had complete control over when I took breaths and how many breaths to take.
And while laughing gas might not get eliminate the pain as anesthesia would, Dixon says that it alleviates the patient's mental anxiety — they say it's all mental anyway, right? (Spoiler: no.) Cost-wise, laughing gas is significantly cheaper at less than $100. Some epidurals can cost more than $1,000.
Despite these benefits, laughing gas is used very rarely in the U.S. Elsewhere in the world, however, it's used by nearly 50 percent of birthing women in Finland and Canada, 50 percent in Australia, and 60 percent in the UK. On top of these numbers, recent reviews have confirmed the safety and effectiveness of the gas. Aside from some side effects that include nausea, vomiting, dizziness and drowsiness (which are minor compared to the side effects of an epidural), nitrous oxide is completely safe for both mom and baby.
After all, it's the same odorless, colorless gas that dentists' offices across the U.S. give to their patients to ease anxiety during teeth procedures.
So why isn't it an accepted form of pain relief for women in labor? Besides a cultural reluctance to introduce something new into its already effective regimen of anesthesia (if it ain't broke, don't fix it), there have also been logistic struggles. According to the Atlantic, one main reason is the fight over who would administer the gas. Midwives and anesthesiologists have fought over the task, each arguing that it falls under their purview.
However, the FDA solved that issue by approving self-administered laughing gas machines in 2012. Since then, more and more birthing centers and hospitals in the country have been giving nitrous oxide a try. According to CBS Minnesota, three more birthing centers have signed on to use laughing gas this year. Images: CBS Minnesota, Getty Images