Nurse midwife Jessica Anderson shows anesthesia providers how to administer "laughing gas" or nitrous oxide. 

(Photo: Courtesy of Tyler Smith, UCH Insider)

Women giving birth at the University of Colorado Hospital now have a new option to ease the pain of giving birth.  The hospital is one of a growing number across the country to use of nitrous oxide -- also known as "laughing gas" -- for women going through what are sometimes excruciating pains. 

Nitrous oxide is commonly used to ease birthing pains in places like Great Britain and Australia, but it hasn't been widely used in the United States. It is used by some dentists and by hospitals for other procedures.

"It's another tool that women can use to decrease pain, decrease anxiety while they're in labor," according to Jessica Anderson, a certified nurse midwife at CU who has used oxide for laboring women. "So if women are wanting to avoid an epidural or maybe IV pain medicine... it's just another option that's very safe for mom and baby. "

Anderson says one reason the use of the gas in the U.S. has lagged behind other countries is because there have been some safety concerns about the machine that's used, but she says the technology is now federally approved.

Much of the research indicates nitrous oxide is safe, but a few studies on pregnant rats have shown that exposing a baby can cause neurological damage down the road.  However, Anderson says those studies involved extremely high exposure to nitrous oxide. 

Unlike other methods of pain control, women administer the gas to themselves, Anderson says.

“It looks like an oxygen mask," she says. "Women hold it, they put it over their face and when they think they’re about getting close to having a contraction, they start taking some big deep breaths.”

But Anderson says women who want the pain to go away entirely should choose an epidural instead.   She says women who use nitrous report that they still feel pain, but say it doesn't bother them as much.

"It's something that maybe takes the edge of the contraction... it really makes women relax." 

Anderson says contrary to what people might think, nitrous oxide or "laughing gas" doesn't make you laugh through labor.  It can make women feel a bit loopy, but she says, if they don't like it, they can stop using it and the effects are out of the body in a minute or two. 

Along with the University of Colorado Hospital, the Mountain Midwifery Center in Englewood also offers nitrous oxide to women in labor.