Nitrous Oxide for Laboring Women, Coming to a Hospital Near You?

I mentioned briefly in a recent post on my views that Nitrous Oxide would be a wonderful option for women who wanted some pain relief during labor but didn’t want an epidural.  Good news! It is making a comeback in the US!

In the US there are only 2 hospitals that currently offer Nitrous Oxide as pain relief for women in labor, but decades ago this was common practice.  Other countries that use Nitrous Oxide include: Canada, Australia, Finland, Sweden, and the UK.  Many homebirth midwives in these countries even offer this as an option.

Since Epidurals came into fashion, with their complete pain relief (i.e numb from the waist down) the Nitrous use waned and eventually disappeared.  But why?

With so many known side effects and possible risks for the fetus that we know come from epidurals (excellent article from Mothering on the hidden dangers of epidurals-I experienced the trouble with breastfeeding), why would a drug that seems to be completely harmless to mother and child not be an option? Money certainly plays a role since epidurals cost big bucks and make hospitals lots of moolah.  And that, my friends, is an entirely different post.

As a mother who has given birth with an epidural, and without, I have seen the extremes.  I had a completely immobile birth resulting from an epidural.  I was not given the option for what some call the “walking epidural,” though I doubt one could truly walk and labor with a tube in your back.  With my homebirth I experienced every contraction and was present for the pain.

Given a choice, I would certainly like to have had a little less pain, but be completely present of mind and body during my labor.

THAT is what nitrous does.  Nitrous is administered just like you would receive it for dental work and is given to the mother at will.

How many of you had hopes for a natural birth and wanted to “wait and see” how things progressed?  That was my plan too.  I was on pitocin and was waiting to see if I would need pain relief.  I waited as long as possible and gave in to the epidural after suffering very strong, humpback contractions brought on by labor inducing drugs.

What if, instead of having to have that epidural when things became too painful, I could use Nitrous Oxide to take the edge off of the pain while still being in control of my body?  I could use it when I wanted, then stop using it once things became manageable (presumably after transition).  You can’t just stop an epidural!  Even after mine was turned off it took 3 hours to regain feeling, just when I was in the pushing phase.  And unlike an epidural, with Nitrous Oxide when it comes time to push, you won’t have to be told when to do it.  This is so very important!

Right now there are two major options: Epidural, or natural.  Complete submission to pain medication and the risks associated with it, including being tied to a bed for hours and hours, or a natural labor and the intense pain that comes with that.  Yet there are some who are in between.  Those women have to choose from two ends of the spectrum. (edited to add: yes there are drugs out there available but these have some pretty gross side effects.  I tried Nubain and it made my labor far worse.  Maybe others had better experience than I did)

Most of us have an (understandable) apprehension about labor. First time mothers especially don’t know what it will be like, how long it will take, and if they can manage their contractions.  The media’s portrayal of labor and that it is a screamfest in need of major drugs (as seen on One Born Every Minute) has tainted women’s view of a natural event.  Fear of pain pushes many of them to get an epidural before they even get far into labor (and you can argue that this in itself leads to unwanted complications leading to C-Sections).  Not every pregnant woman does extensive research into their options, and only know what they are told by their doctors.  Reading Ina May’s Guide To Childbirth made me believe in my ability to birth naturally.

I, for one, am happy to see this form of pain relief making a comeback.  It isn’t being rolled out in full force but I believe once women see what it can do there will be enough demand that other hospitals will want to partake.  More information about Nitrous Oxide in labor (full risks and benefits) can be found in this Position Statement put out by the American College of Nurse-Midwives (.pdf)

It doesn’t have to be all or nothing. You don’t win a medal for giving birth all natural (but it is definitely something to be proud of, and I am very happy I did so) so if taking the edge off of labor pains in a safe and effective way will reduce unnecessary C-Sections and possibly even increase breastfeeding rates I say DO IT.

Would you use Nitrous Oxide in your future births, hospital, birth center, or home, of you had the option?

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