Laughing Gas Now Becoming Popular Option for Women Giving Birth

PHOTO: Kate McGovern, a nurse educator and midwife at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, Mass., demonstrates the equipment that delivers nitrous oxide to women who elect to use it for pain relief during labor.PlayBrigham and Women's Hospital
WATCH Some Maternity Wards Offering Laughing Gas Again

A Minneapolis mom who wanted a natural birth was more than 13 hours into labor when she felt she wasn't going to make it without something to take the edge off the pain. But rather than asking for an epidural or narcotics, she begged for laughing gas.

"It immediately took my fear away and helped calm me down, though I could still feel the pain," Megan Goodoien, who gave birth at the Minnesota Birthing Center this month, told ABC News today. "I didn't laugh because the labor was so intense, but I everything suddenly felt doable just when I thought I couldn't make it anymore. It's definitely a mental thing."

PHOTO: Megan Goodoien, a Minneapolis mom who used nitrous oxide during delivery, is pictured here with her baby after delivery on Jan. 11, 2015.Courtesy Megan Goodoien
Megan Goodoien, a Minneapolis mom who used nitrous oxide during delivery, is pictured here with her baby after delivery on Jan. 11, 2015.

Though nitrous oxide has long been used in European countries and Canada, the gas is now making a resurgence in the U.S., according to medical experts.

The gas, once popular in the U.S., was sidelined after the advent of the epidural in the 1930's, midwife Kerry Dixon told ABC News, noting she believes epidurals took over because they were more profitable. Dixon did not treat Goodoien but works at the Minnesota Birthing Center.

"The average cost for a woman opting for nitrous oxide is less than a $100, while an epidural can run up to $3,000 because of extra anesthesia fees," Dixon said.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved new nitrous oxide equipment for delivery room use in 2011, which could also explain the resurgence, Dixon told ABC News.

"Maybe 10 years ago, less than five or 10 hospitals used it [for women in labor]," Dr. William Camann, director of obstetric anesthetics at Brigham and Women's Hospital, told ABC News. "Now, probably several hundred. It’s really exploded. Many more hospitals are expressing interest."

He added the gas popular in dentists' offices has an "extraordinary safety record" in delivery rooms outside the U.S. But more studies are needed to confirm its safety, other doctors say.

Laughing gas works differently than an epidural or narcotic in that it targets pain more on a mental level than physical, experts said.

"It's a relatively mild pain reliever that causes immediate feelings of relaxation and helps relieve anxiety," Camman said. "It makes you better able to cope with whatever pain you’re having."

But gas can also change awareness, said Dr. Jennifer Ashton, a senior medical contributor for ABC News and practicing OB/GYN.

"In delivering over 1,500 babies, I had never used it nor has anyone asked for [nitrous oxide]," Ashton told ABC News. "[M]ost moms want to be totally aware when they are in labor."

Mothers who have opted for nitrous oxide like that it's self-administered by the patient, who has total control over if and when it's used.

A Nashville mother said she opted for the gas during labor only after she found herself too tense to push.

"I instantly felt relaxed," Shauna Zurawski 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. It was so neat."

Both Goodoien and Zurawski said they put a nitrous oxide machine's mouthpiece over their mouth and nose and inhaled about 30 seconds before their next contraction to get the maximum effect.

Another advantage is that the chemical gets out of your system shortly after stopping inhalation.

"With my first child, I had an epidural, I was numb for so long after the delivery and it took a while to get back to normal," Zurawski said. "But with the nitrous oxide, I was walking around and taking pictures almost right after."

Both Goodoien and Zurawski said they didn't experience any adverse side effects.

Nitrous oxide's possible side effects are usually just minor nuisances such as nausea, dizziness or drowsiness, medical experts told ABC News.

Patients can also choose to stop or get an epidural at any time if they find they don't want the laughing gas.

It's still early to tell how popular this new option will get, but in countries like New Zealand, about 70 percent of women in labor choose to use laughing gas, Dixon said.

"When I was working in New Zealand, I told one of my patients, [laughing gas] wasn't really used in the U.S. and you know what she said?" Dixon asked. "'I thought they have everything in America!'"