Nitrous oxide has become increasingly relevant in labor and delivery in recent years. The technique has been a common contributor to pain management in European labor and delivery units for many years and has been shown to provide positive outcomes.
Isn’t Nitrous Oxide What Dentists Use?
Yes. And no. Nitrous oxide has been commonly used in dentistry for decades. However, there are significant differences between dental use and the administration of nitrous oxide during labor and delivery.
During labor, the concentration of nitrous oxide is no greater than 50% (mixed with oxygen). Also, the woman is in control of the administration of this mild anesthetic throughout her labor. Intermittent use of nitrous oxide takes place through a small mask that fits over the nose or a mouthpiece, and delivery is controlled by what is called a “demand valve,” a unit that releases the gas upon inhalation through the mouthpiece or mask.
What Exactly Is Nitrous Oxide?
Nitrous oxide is a gas without color, taste, or scent. When inhaled in combination with oxygen, nitrous oxide diminishes the reaction in the central nervous system to external stimulation. Essentially, this gas facilitates calm peace of mind. It is not an anesthetic, but nitrous oxide has been said to increase pain tolerance.
What Are the Benefits of Nitrous Oxide During Labor?
There are several advantages to nitrous oxide for a smoother delivery. These include:
- Simple administration.
- No interference with the release of oxytocin, or with the progression of labor.
- Infant alertness, and thus early bonding, is not inhibited.
- Breastfeeding is not adversely affected by nitrous oxide.
- Awareness of labor pain remains but is diminished by the analgesic effect of nitrous oxide.
- Effects of nitrous oxide disappear quickly if a woman stops administration.
- Self-administration gives mother control over dosage, including switching to another method of pain relief.
- Nitrous oxide can be started or stopped at any point during labor. Some women do not begin self-administration until they are ready to push.
So, Another Method of Pain Relief May Also Be Used?
Depending on where labor and delivery take place, it is possible for a woman to modify her pain management techniques as needed through her birthing process. Research indicates that some women who begin labor with nitrous oxide moves on to request an epidural to achieve greater pain relief. Remember, nitrous oxide is intended more as a relaxing agent than full-on pain relief. Talk with your healthcare provider about your preferences for your birthing process.
Will the Use of Nitrous Oxide Inhibit Movement During Labor?
One of the advantages of nitrous oxide is that it does not cause muscle weakness or grogginess in most women. This means that standing and walking can take place without difficulty.
Does Nitrous Oxide Slow Labor down or Affect the Baby?
Studies do not indicate that the use of nitrous oxide will alter the progression of labor. This analgesic is inhaled and primarily affects the lungs and central nervous system.
Clinical reports indicate that baby’s heart rate and breathing do not decrease with nitrous oxide. In one review published in Anesthesia and Analgesia, it was stated that Apgar scores for nitrous oxide births were similar to births in which no medication was used, or for which other methods of pain relief were administered. Further studies are warranted, but years of use point to effectiveness and safety.
Doesn’t Nitrous Oxide Make You Laugh?
It’s true that nitrous oxide is also called “laughing gas.” However, the lower dosages of gas to oxygen that are administered during labor typically do not invoke bouts of all-out laughter. What a woman does tend to experience is substantial stress relief. She may even feel a strong sense of well-being or euphoria and may become slightly chatty.
Can a Family Member Help with Nitrous Oxide Administration?
As much as it may seem helpful to have a partner or family member hold the mouthpiece or mask in place, this is outside of the safety precautions set up for this method of pain management.