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Pregnancy & Birth

Nitrous Oxide for Pain Relief in Labor

Nitrous oxide (N2O) is an odorless, tasteless gas that you inhale through a mask. You may know nitrous oxide as “laughing gas” or a tool for pain relief during dental care. Exactly how nitrous oxide works is not well understood, but many women who use it during labor find it beneficial. In the United Kingdom, where midwives use it in hospitals and carry it with them to home births, N2O is the most commonly used form of analgesia, with three of every five women using it at some time during labor.1

Used with current equipment and procedures, nitrous oxide is safe, is effective for many women, and has important advantages compared to other much more commonly used methods of labor analgesia. It provides better pain relief than opioid medicines and doesn’t have any of the adverse side effects for mothers or babies that can occur after using opioids or epidurals. N2O takes effect very quickly (about a minute after breathing in the gas), wears off quickly, and is controlled by the laboring woman.

Unfortunately, nitrous oxide is rarely available for use in labor in the United States. In 2010, the American College of Nurse-Midwives issued a position statement calling for an increase in the availability of nitrous oxide for laboring women. A growing number of advocates and care providers are working to make nitrous oxide widely available to birthing women in the United States. For more information, see More Discussion of Nitrous Oxide in Labor at Our Bodies, Our Blog.

End notes:

1. M. A. Rosen, “Nitrous Oxide for Relief of Labor Pain: A Systematic Review,” American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology 186, no. 5 suppl. Nature (2002): S110– S126.

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