Birth: Nitrous vs Nothing
I’m one of few women in the U.S. to have birthed one baby with nitrous oxide and another without. Having experienced labor both with and without, I’m a big fan. A really big fan. This is the story of how nitrous made the two births different.
I birthed my first baby, Moby, at the UCSF Medical Center, a choice driven largely by the availability of nitrous oxide (full birth story here). I birthed my third baby, Sonoma, at Sequoia Hospital with no pain meds. Nitrous oxide, commonly used in labor in other developed countries, is offered for pain relief in labor in only a handful of U.S. hospitals.
Nitrous helped me labor. Moby’s birth hurt and hurt a lot but I didn’t fight the pain. I relaxed with the contractions. Nitrous dulled the pain to let my body let the baby out. In contrast, with no pain medications during Sonoma’s birth, once my body started pushing the pain was so severe that I fought the process. I pushed only after I became desperate enough to need the suffering to end. After I started to cooperate it only took two or three pushes to get Sonoma out, two or three horrifically painful and desperate pushes. The few final pushes which squeezed out Moby were involuntary, my body doing its effective best while my nitrous-assisted mind still focused on relaxing since no one had told me I was fully dilated.
Nitrous also helped me find a rhythm. Managing the nitrous to match my contractions gave me something to do, a way to focus on the labor without focusing on the pain. It also brought on a light mental haze. With Sonoma I was more distracted by the people around me and never able to effectively shut out the distractions of the labor room.
Nitrous doesn’t take away the pain entirely. It’s not a substitute for an epidural. It’s a tool for making labor a little easier. For women hoping to avoid epidural and IV anesthesia, nitrous oxide can be enough to avoid a desperate last minute request for stronger pain relief, just enough not to fight and undermine a body that can do what it needs to do.
Given how helpful I found nitrous oxide and what I saw it do for a friend in labor, I certainly wish more U.S. hospitals offered it. It’s probably the safest of the medical pain relief options in labor. And yet few U.S. hospitals offer it, probably through some combination of hospital tradition, anesthesiologist disbelief that partial pain relief is worthwhile, and cost.