Nitrous for Labor. Yes, No or Don’t Know? 11

****I do not want this to become a discussion on the safety of nitrous for labor.  I am wanting to have a discussion about the philosophy of using something like nitrous.****
Nitrous for Labor
Several months ago my birth center started offering Nitrous Oxide (N2O) for the use of pain management in labor. This is something that I had been wanting to do for several years. I have been reading about it and researching it for quite some time. The first time I proposed this to the other midwives, it was not popular and was basically ‘voted’ down. A year or so passed, we had some changes in midwives and I presented the idea again. This time the response was very positive and we decided to go for it. I then did all the necessary things; staff training and education, ordering the equipment, letting our families know complete with educational handouts and consent forms, and all the other technical requirements. And in September of 2014 we rolled it out.

Prior to this, I had never seen N2O used. I was simply passionate about it as a safe option for women. As a midwife, I am committed to ensuring that women have options and are presented those options with true informed consent. I spoke with several people; other midwives, experts in the field and women and felt that it should be an option. At the time there was no other facility in our entire state offering N2O. Since then, one of our local hospitals has started offering it as well. I am very happy about that as it only increases access and choice to the women of my community.

Now that we have been using it, I have several observations from experience. There are things that I really like about it and others that I don’t. Overall though I really like this option and am very glad that we have it available. I know for a fact that it has helped to prevent several transfers from our center to the hospital and that is a huge success to me. We have also used it to prevent a transfer postpartum for a laceration repair in a woman with severe anxiety about the process. Here is a little break down of my thoughts so far;

Things That I Like

  • The woman is in complete control.
  • It can be used in the birth pool, sitting on the birth ball, in the bathroom on the toilet, standing at the bedside…you get the point.
  • It can become a sort of focal point that helps her to focus on her breathing.
  • It really seems to decrease anxiety
  • It can be used at anytime during labor
  • It can be used for other indications; laceration repair, third stage, IUD insertions
  • If she does not like it for any reason, she simply stops using it and the effects wear off within minutes

Things That I Don’t Like

  • The machine is cumbersome and takes up a good amount of space
  • The scavenging vacuum is loud, it becomes a ‘white’ noise but is still there
  • The mask can seem claustrophobic
  • It can be distracting for some women to figure out the timing, making it harder to focus on her breathing

Clearly, N2O is not for everyone and sometimes it just does not offer any benefit for an individual woman. It does not take the pain away and so the expectations have to be appropriate. What I have noticed in the social media forums is that there is a definite bias in some of the “natural childbirth” communities against N2O. Bias that using N2O is not “natural birth”. That it is a type of cop out or that only women who don’t have good enough midwives, support persons or who are not properly prepared would need it. To me, this smacks of judgment, which is something I think that we all as humans need to be very careful of. Judgment runs rampant in our current birth culture and this is just another example of that. So, what do you think? Have you used N2O yourself or have you had clients use it? I would love a positive, open discussion about all thoughts.

Image credit Aubre Tompkins, CNM

Want more information on the science behind N2O? Here is an article that I wrote for the Mountain Midwifery Center blog.

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11 thoughts on “Nitrous for Labor. Yes, No or Don’t Know?

  • Dorothy

    I work as a doula, and the local hospital has the nitrous oxide piped right into the rooms, which means no cumbersome tanks, but also means it can only be used in/around the bed. They also have the option of the mouth-piece attachment instead of a mask. Do you have this option? Most people find it less claustrophobic. I have had quite a few of my clients use it and enjoy it. I love that it puts a woman in control of her own pain relief, and allows her to decide how much she needs. The thing I think is a real benefit is that it focuses the breathing! I love that clients can use it while having laceration repairs, as something extra to take an edge off, and focus on during that time. I also love that clients can use it as a bridge (between medication options), such as while waiting for an epidural, or while waiting for an urge to push.

  • Anonymous

    A caution. I can send a woman with vitamin B 12 deficiency into a downward spiral even years later. Many times this is not properly diagnosed and even leads to death.

  • Anonymous

    I work in Australia where nitrous is in common use in birthing rooms. The woman sucks then blows out through the mouthpiece so the nitrous travels back through the scavenging tube.


  • Gina

    I had my son at U.C.S.F. almoat 9 years ago and used this. I have to agree about the timing problem. At first it felt like a huge relief after being in slow labor for days. Then, rather quickly, I lost the rhythm of my breaths and it started to feel like a roller coaster ride so I stopped using it. I also agree with having judgement free conversations about child birth. Thank you!

    • aubrekate

      Thanks for your thoughts and the sharing of your experience. Nitrous is definitely not for everyone. I have had some women try it and also really not like it. The good news is that if you don’t like it, it leaves your system very fast. And leaving judgement at the door is so necessary if we are going to make real change in our maternity system. Thanks for reading!

  • Chelsea

    I am a doula. An interesting comment that I’ve heard expressed is that it reminded them of college days passing around a bong. For some, that ‘throw back’ of feeling was quite unexpected and therefore threw them out of focus. Some have even quit because they were so uncomfortable with that type of detached feeling during labor.

    • aubrekate

      Chelsea, interesting points. I have not heard any clients say that or report this experience but I suppose it is possible. Thanks for your comment and sharing.

  • Emily

    I have cared for women using nitrous both in our birth center and in the hospital. I really like it for women who have a premature urge to push. On the flip side I’ve had mamas get so relaxed that they forget to push after a couple of deep breaths. I’ve had to bargain with some–let’s try 3 pushing contractions without it to get that baby moving! I also love it for tough repairs. What I really don’t like- a couple of women with trauma histories have had flashbacks and gotten pretty disassociative when using it. I now talk to women with disclosed trauma histories prenatally about whether they’ve ever used nitrous, medically or recreationally, and what their experience was like. If they’ve never used it we talk about whether they have flashbacks or disassociative times and what triggers those feelings. Sometimes women are clear that it would be a BAD experience and I note that on her birth plan. For women it works well for, I think it is great but I have seen it open dark doors during incredibly vulnerable times. Like all interventions, I try to use it judicially.

    • aubrekate

      Thanks for sharing your experiences and observations! I also love to use it for laceration repairs, we of course also use local anesthetic but for some folks they also benefit from some extra help with the anxiety around the repair. I have not seen the flashbacks you describe in trauma survivors but will absolutely kept an eye out for that, thanks!