Nitrous oxide, commonly known as laughing gas, is used very infrequently (in less than 1 percent of women) as a form of labor analgesia in the U.S. There are only a few centers in the country where this type of inhaled gas is routinely available to patients. It tends to be used more frequently in the United Kingdom and some other countries.
Studies that have been published about the use of nitrous oxide for labor analgesia indicate that pain relief is very minimal, similar to that of injected narcotic pain relievers. Although some studies show no pain relief at all when mothers use it during labor, a few women did report relief of some sort. However, nitrous oxide does not improve the rates of maternal nausea or vomiting during labor.
There has been little research on the effects of nitrous oxide on the baby during labor. Anesthesiologists do not know the long-term effects the gas might have on the brain and neurologic development of infants, or if certain infants may be at higher risk for problems. Nitrous oxide also can depress breathing in some mothers, as well as cause drowsiness. However, modern monitoring technology typically helps to manage these issues.
Another concern about the use of nitrous oxide during labor is that environmental pollution occurs when it is inhaled by mothers and then exhaled into the atmosphere. Air in labor rooms could contain significant concentrations of the gas and expose it to other individuals in the room, such as nurses, labor coaches and family members. Since nitrous oxide is a “greenhouse gas,” it has the same negative effects in the atmosphere as carbon dioxide.
Learn more about other types of pain relief during labor and delivery.