Nitrous oxide, a.k.a. “laughing gas,” is moving beyond the dentist’s office to the delivery room. Starting this week, moms at MedStar Washington Hospital Center can use the drug for pain relief during labor. The blend is half nitrous oxide, half oxygen, and is less concentrated than the one used by dentists. Patients self-administer the drug by breathing it in through a face mask, putting the mask on and taking it off to adjust the dosage as needed. “It’s controlled by Mom,” says Loral Patchen, the hospital’s director of midwifery. “She makes the decisions about how long she wants to breathe it.”
Nitrous oxide dulls the pain rather than blocking it completely as an epidural does; women will still be able to feel their contractions, which can help them know when to push. Since the drug passes out of the system quickly, there’s little risk to the patient, and side effects are minor, ranging from nausea and dizziness to feelings of loopiness. By allowing patients to retain mobility and sensation, nitrous is an especially attractive option for women seeking a natural birth experience. “Our goal within the practice is to be able to offer women a greater range of options,” Patchen says. “There’s a lot you can’t predict with birth and labor, and it’s nice to have the flexibility that if we need to adjust, we can.”
The use of nitrous oxide during childbirth isn’t new; it’s been administered in other countries for years and is available at about 20 other hospitals in the US, including University of California, San Francisco, Vanderbilt, and Dartmouth. But adaptation in the states has been slow due to cultural taboos and a lack of appropriate equipment. According to Mike Civitello, a product sales manager for Porter Instrument, which manufactures MedStar’s nitrous apparatus: “It takes hospitals a long time to adopt new things.” MedStar Washington Hospital Center is the first in the Washington area to offer the drug. For now, the option will be limited to patients in MedStar Washington Hospital Center’s midwifery practice, but Patchen says if demand is sufficiently high, the hospital may add it to the general obstetrics program in the future.