Laughing through labor pains

December 7, 2011 1:49:33 PM PST
Moms across the country share the joys and hard work of motherhood. But before it all begins, you must endure the labor pains, something first-time mom Monica Bafetti knows all too well.

"We went to the hospital on Wednesday morning and we didn't end having the baby until Thursday afternoon," she remembers.

Like many first time moms, Bafetti wanted a pain-free birth. But that meant an epidural, which she wasn't sure she wanted. Then she heard about another option: nitrous oxide, better known as laughing gas.

"I did some reading just to find out what it was all about to see if it was safe for the baby," Bafetti says.

The technique is said to be the most common pain reliever in the world. Yet, in the United States, only three centers actually offer the gas during labor.

"It reduces the pain that a woman feels, it also has an anxiety reducing effect," explains Sarah Starr, an assistant professor of Clinical Anesthesiology at Vanderbilt Medical Center.

A specialized machine mixes 50 percent oxygen and 50 percent nitrous oxide. When inhaled, it reaches the mother's brain within 20 seconds.

"When she feels the contraction coming on, she places the mask on her face and breathes during the contraction," Starr says.

But unlike an epidural, it will not wipe away the pain completely.

"It really took care of a great deal of my pain, I'd say maybe 80%," Bafetti estimates.

Only a handful of companies reportedly produce the gas in the U.S. and the FDA has yet to approve the premixed oxygen and nitrous oxide tanks used in other countries.

There are also risks, especially in high doses. In some people, the gas can depress breathing as well as cause drowsiness. The long-term effects of the gas are not known, but so far it seems to be safe for both mothers and babies.