Up until the early 20th century, when the epidural was introduced, laughing gas was the premiere choice for pain relief during childbirth for women in the United States. Almost a century after falling out of popularity, laughing gas is seeing a comeback.
Laughing gas, or nitrous oxide, is still a common pain reliever for women in labor around the world — 62 percent of British women use it, and 70 percent of women in New Zealand opt for it during childbirth.
In 2011, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved new laughing gas equipment. As a result there was a resurgence of it in delivery rooms around the country. Today, laughing gas is in hundreds of hospitals. Porter Instrument, maker of Nitronox, said that about 300 hospitals and birth centers offer laughing gas for pain management.
However, it’s a relatively slow comeback. Midwife Kerry Dixon told ABC News that because laughing gas is quite cheaper than epidurals and does not generate much revenue for drug companies, it’s still somewhat rare to find a delivery room equipped with it.
“The average cost for a woman opting for nitrous oxide is less then a $100, while an epidural can run up to $3,000 because of extra anesthesia fees,” Dixon said.
Laughing gas, unlike epidurals or narcotics, targets pain on a mental level rather than physical.
“It’s a relatively mild pain reliever that causes immediate feelings of relaxation and helps relieve anxiety,” Dr. William Camann, director of obstetric anesthetics at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, told ABC News. “It makes you better able to cope with whatever pain you’re having.”
Michelle Collins, a professor and director of nurse midwifery at Vanderbilt University School of Nursing, is helping to lead the revival of laughing gas in U.S. delivery rooms. Collins believes by offering the choice, midwives are advocating for women and giving them back some control over their experience of giving birth.
“For some women, the epidural is going to be their number one choice. For other women, they want to be unmedicated…For other women, nitrous oxide is a viable choice,” Collins told NPR. “It’s seen somewhat like a menu and for everything that’s safe, it should be on that menu and available to the woman.”
With epidurals and narcotics, the mother is at an increased risk of needing medical interventions later in labor, Collins said. Women are also left numb for hours after delivering the baby and can leave them feeling drugged. For many mothers, laughing gas is the ideal alternative.
“I instantly felt relaxed,” Shauna Zurawski, a mother who opted for laughing gas, told ABC News. “Before, I was so tense. I was fighting against the contractions, which definitely wasn’t good. But after the laughing gas, my body was able to do what it was supposed to.”
But it’s not as simple as just breathing in — mothers need to be able to anticipate their contractions and inhale the laughing gas about 30 seconds before.
The overall consensus is that laughing gas is relatively safe to use for women in labor. The gas is filtered through the mother’s lungs and not the liver, and is gone once the mother takes a breath of room air.
However, many experts say that there needs to be more research done in order to determine just how effective laughing gas is during childbirth. Others argue that laughing gas simply isn’t strong enough to help with the pain of childbirth.
Danielle Tarasiuk is a multimedia journalist based in Los Angeles. Her work has been published on AllDay.com, Yahoo! Sports, KCET, and NPR-affiliate stations KPCC and KCRW. She’s a proud Sarah Lawrence College and USC Annenberg alumn.