I tried laughing gas in childbirth, a new natural pain relief for labor

By Gemma James

Founder of MomsHood


I really did it. I surprised myself to be honest. I used the new nitrous oxide gas and avoided the epidural!

It was my second birth in two years. The first one was traumatic – I had planned for an unmedicated delivery. I chose a midwife, and booked in at the birthing center, but it ended up being horrific. The baby was in a posterior position normally associated with a long drawn-out labor.   So, after 12 hours of agonising contractions, I was stressed out big time. Each further internal exam showed no progression from 7cm.  Oh the pain!  I screamed for an epidural and had a long wait for the anaesthesiologist.  It all worked out well in the end but it took me a long time to get over it, I had nightmares about it for weeks. People say you forget the pain of childbirth but I, most certainly, did not.

So, here I was again, only a year and a half after this experience and I was nine month pregnant. So many people were telling me, ‘second baby so close together, it will be quick’. But, if I learned something from my first experience, it was don’t go into labor with high expectations. That was my mistake with my first.  I thought if I prepared enough and thought through all the scenarios I could control it. How wrong I was. There is very little you can control in labor, every experience is so different.

I worried about this second birth. Worried that I wouldn’t be able to handle the pain this time around; that it would be too quick and I wouldn’t make it to the hospital or that it would be slow, more painful and even longer than the first. Despite everything I still really wanted an unmedicated birth.

But, this time I had a trump card, my midwife had let me know that Mount Sinai Roosevelt hospital in New York where I was scheduled to give birth had just started offering nitrous oxide during labor, a revolutionary new pain medication. Actually it’s not new at all as other countries:  UK, Canada, Australia for example, have been using this to reduce pain during labor for decades.  In fact it was even featured in PBS’s Call the Midwife, a show set in England in the 1950s.  

I am originally from England with many of my friends and family having used it (that’s true for 80% of women in England) with good experiences. I had heard that using the gas doesn’t fully block the pain like an epidural, but it also isn’t as invasive and doesn’t require an IV or catheter and so you can still move around, you can even be in a tub if you want.  Essentially too, it has absolutely no ill effect on the unborn child. I was really keen to give it a go.

So, at 7.15pm that night, I met my midwife (from Midwifery of Manhattan) on the labor floor with my mom (a former midwife from England) and husband in tow. To say I was apprehensive was an understatement. My midwife did my exam and said I was 4cm, slightly more than when I saw her for the office visit four days before. We discussed some options and agreed that the plan should be that she would break my waters since they had not broken naturally. This hopefully would cause the baby's head to sit tightly over the womb opening and stimulate contraction to get labor.  With close monitoring of the baby's heartbeat I was free to walk about at will.  My contractions started to come every four or five minutes and I walked up and down the corridor in the hospital. To start with I could walk and talk through the contractions, after about an hour of that, the pain started to stop me in my tracks. I could only hold onto something while the wave of pain flowed over me. In between I would keep walking. After about 2 hours of this, around 11pm, the pain was getting worse and so I asked for the gas.

By the time they had the machine set up, the pain was getting unbearable, I was starting to panic, to be honest.  I wasn’t sure I was going to be able to make it through. Memories of the previous experience were flooding back. The big thing with the gas is you give it to yourself, no one holds the mask over your face.  They handed me the mask and instructed me to take a big breath in whenever I felt a contraction coming.  By this time the contractions were every two minutes. Taking big breathes of the gas in and out I started to relax - the anxiety was gone. It was magical!  I felt so calm. Every time I took off the mask the effects wore off quickly because gas is expelled through the lungs so the more you breathe normally the effect just goes.  It took a little time to get the timing right so that it was effective at the peak of my contractions. It was phenomenal to be in control, I could take the mask off whenever I wanted, although I really didn’t want to. As I breathed in more of the gas, I felt the contractions and pain but felt like I didn’t really care. It’s like I was drunk or high and disconnected from the situation around me. The pain was there but it was off to the side as I was dreaming about other things. If they had said they wanted to cut my leg off I would probably have agreed - well perhaps not really.

The contractions kept coming and now it was as if there was no gap at all in-between them, as I entered the transition phase. I’d been lying on my back but at this point I got on all fours on the bed while  my husband pushed on my hips and my mom rubbed my back, which seemed to help. I kept the mask on and as I breathed the gas in and out I felt like I drifted off.  I was super-focused on the music I had playing in the room, the words going round in my head as I was tripping. The wave of contractions flooded over me, the pain was still excruciating. I felt like I kept drifting off until my mom was next to me shouting for me to ‘push!’.  My mum prized the mask off me at this point so I could stay focused as I kept forgetting to push. At 1am, after 20 minutes of pushing, my beautiful baby girl had arrived at a healthy 8lb 5oz and she was screaming with a perfect Apgar score!  I credit my quick labor to the relaxing effects of using nitrous oxide.  

Using the gas doesn’t rule out other pain medication. Had I known that my first baby was laying in a posterior position and therefore I was more than likely to have a prolonged labour I would have elected to have an epidural for pain relief no doubt about it.  For my second pregnancy the gas was definitely the way forward since I had only two hours of real pain and the gas helped me cope and control my actions.  Even during the second stage I could take a deep breath on the gas and the edge was taken off the pain as I pushed.

Currently, only a handful of hospitals in the US are offering women Nitrous oxide during labor. It is my fervent hope that as more women find out about this and ask for it many more hospitals will offer it as an option. Nitrous is harmless, effective, it shortens labour as it helps relaxation and it has no ill-effect the baby. I hope you can try it and see.