Nitrous Oxide & Childbirth

So you’re going to have a baby . . . you’ve maintained a healthy diet and lifestyle throughout your pregnancy; you’ve been working with a midwife or trusted family doctor, and you’re writing your birth plan. You’re pretty sure you don’t want drugs for the pain–or perhaps you are certain you want something –anything – for pain relief. Whatever your story is, you might be interested to know about Nitrous Oxide, AKA “Laughing Gas.”

History of Nitrous Oxide

While the substance has been known for centuries, it wasn’t until the mid-1840s when a dentist by the name of Dr. Horace Wells discovered that anaesthetizing patients using N2O allowed him to pull teeth and perform other dental work without causing his patients horrific pain. While at a trade demonstration in Hartford, Connecticut, Dr. Wells saw a man huff on Nitrous Oxide then suffer an accident in which his leg was hurt. Miraculously, the man felt no pain! Dr. Wells was intrigued and decided to investigate further. He had the gas administered to himself and then had a colleague remove one of his teeth! He knew instantly that he had discovered “pain free” dentistry.

Early “Clinical Trials”

Humphry Davy, an 18th-century chemist, was a huge fan of Nitrous Oxide. He worked for the Pneumatic Institution  where they studied recently discovered gases. Back then, it was not uncommon to trial new ideas and theories on yourself–and that is just what Humphry Davis did when he came across N2O.

The date of Davis’ experiment with Nitrous Oxide was Dec. 26, 1799: Boxing day. On this day, he locked himself into a box (irony, eh?) and had a physician release 20 quarts of N2O into the box every 5 minutes for as long as he remained conscious. He lasted more than an hour in the box, and happily survived the ordeal.

He described his experience this way:

  • He noticed a sweet taste in his mouth and gentle pressure in the head, chest and limbs, which spread to his fingers and toes.
  • He experienced vision changes and objects becoming clearer and brighter.
  • His hearing became acute while a distant but not unpleasant hum was noted.
  • He said that the previously cramped box suddenly felt larger and more spacious.
  • He enjoyed himself immensely and declared the entire experiment a huge success.

You can read about Davis’ experiment in more detail here.

It was at this time that Davis began to spread the word about this wonderful new gas he had.

In modern applications, mixing it with oxygen reduces any risk associated with its use.

What Nitrous Oxide Does to The Brain

Technically Nitrous Oxide is not a narcotic because it is not processed through the liver. It is, however, classified as an analgesic because it relieves pain by releasing opioids while simultaneously activating your opioid receptors.  It is classified as an anesthetic in its own right (this is particular to when the concentration is 70% or more of N2O) although lighter doses are usually used as an aide to a general anesthetic in applications as an anxiolytic:  meaning that it is known to reduce anxiety. Three for the price of one, this gas is a hard worker!

Researchers compare the effects of taking a 30% concentration of N2O to the effects of 10-15 milligrams of morphine.

An interesting aspect of Nitrous Oxide is that only .004% of N2O is metabolized. When you exhale, all but a tiny fraction of the entirety of the substance is completely expelled from your body. For this reason, mothers are often administered “laughing gas” via a mask as an alternative to narcotic pain relief. The hospital machines are set to a ratio of 50:50 N2O to Oxygen so there is no danger of lack of Oxygen availability for the baby or the mother.

Another plus is that it is completely self-administered. At any time, Mama can freely use it, refuse it, or stop using it altogether. Experts don’t believe that using Nitrous Oxide during childbirth presents any dangers to the baby because unlike a narcotic, N2O is filtered through the lungs rather than the liver and expelled completely and there has been no evidence of adverse effects to Baby.

BirthSarah Cosman