NO ONE will ever claim that childbirth is a laughing matter. That’s why nitrous oxide — or laughing gas — seems like such an odd choice for helping women in labor. Despite its use in childbirth as far back as 1881, it had been widely overlooked until recently, when more hospitals began to see its effectiveness as a valuable analgesic during labor.
Today, Brigham and Women’s Hospital will become the first hospital in Boston to allow women in labor to use nitrous oxide. While highly popular in Canada (where almost half of women giving birth use it), Australia (50 percent), and the United Kingdom (60 percent), laughing gas for childbirth was being used in only 1 percent of US hospitals in 2011. But currently, according to some reports, more than 30 hospitals and birthing centers are either already offering, or about to incorporate, the laughing gas option.
The odorless gas has a dissociating effect that allows women to experience childbirth with less pain. It’s cheap and, because it’s self-administered, easy to use; it can be inhaled at any time during labor, even well into childbirth. And it’s safe for both the mother and the baby.
Laughing gas makes the patient slightly drowsy and doesn’t provide the same kind of pain relief as an epidural, but it does take the edge off things, according to Dr. Bill Camann, director of obstetric anesthesia at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. Childbirth is rarely a gas; credit the Brigham for helping to make the process go a little smoother.