Nitrous Oxide for Labor

Nitrous oxide has been an option for pain relief at the dentist’s office for decades. But nitrous oxide has also been used for pain relief by women in labor since the 1800s. It was widely used throughout Europe and the United States through the early 1900s, but when new medical pain relievers hit the market in the US in the late ’70s, the nitrous tanks eventually wound up in the back of the stock room closet.

Over the last few years though it’s been making a comeback as more women are aiming for a natural birth without medical pain relief such as an epidural, which is medication that’s injected into the back to numb the region around the abdomen. Breath of Life Birth Center was one of the first local birth facilities to offer nitrous oxide to women in labor.

Nitrous oxide is available for all women in labor (unless medically contraindicated), but only a small number of our clients – about 15% — actually use nitrous in labor. Catie Behling was one of them. She had two babies at Breath of Life and chose nitrous oxide for her most recent labor. She said it relieved her pain without the side effects of an epidural, which she had had during a previous birth.

“When I had nitrous, I could relax, I could rest, I could breathe and I didn’t feel the worst of it,” Catie said. “I still felt something, but it wasn’t excruciating. I could still move and walk around.” Catie said that ultimately, using the nitrous oxide provided enough pain relief that she was able to make it through the rest of her labor and avoided being transferred to the hospital for an epidural. (See her full interview below.)

Not everyone has the same experience as Catie. Some women who use the nitrous say they are very much aware of the sensations of the contractions, but that the nitrous makes them not care very much about the pain, which can help labor progress. For a very small number of clients, they don’t like it at all and only use it through a few contractions.

But for the women who use it and like it, nitrous oxide makes an excellent choice for pain relief because it:
• Works quickly
• Is inexpensive
• Doesn’t require an IV
• Can be used in the tub
• Is metabolized quickly
• Doesn’t require continuous fetal monitoring
• Allows women freedom of movement in labor
• Has no known side effects for the mother or baby

In 2012, the National Institutes of Health reviewed the use of nitrous oxide in labor and concluded that it “provides a safe option for pain relief in labor” and that making it more widely available would “increase pain management options for laboring women.”

Catie would agree. “Our midwife suggested it because I was asking to transfer…but it sealed the deal and allowed us to stay at Breath of Life.”