Women at Hennepin County Medical Center (HCMC) now have a new option when it comes to managing birthing pains: nitrous oxide, also commonly known as “laughing gas.”

While the gas has been used widely in dental offices across the United States for years, its use to relieve pain during labor has been confined mostly to hospitals in Europe and Australia.

“Up until recently, the specialized equipment was manufactured in those countries and it was very expensive to ship the necessary equipment to the states,” says Sara Wendt, the clinical care supervisor at HCMC’s birth center. “Now there are a couple of vendors in the United States making it much more affordable.”

HCMC began offering nitrous oxide during labor earlier this year. “Our patients really were the ones asking for nitrous to be offered in the hospital setting,” Wendt says. Clinicians across the board supported adding the service, which enabled HCMC to start offering it within three months of developing a plan, she says. “We had great support from all of our obstetrics providers, certified nurse midwives … along with a nursing staff that wanted to see it happen,” Wendt says. “Anesthesia supported us 100 percent, which is not always the case in other hospital settings.”

When used during labor, nitrous oxide is distributed via a face mask 30 to 60 seconds before the patient expects to experience pain or a contraction. As soon as the mask is removed, the medication leaves the body within one to two breaths. Nitrous oxide has no known negative effects on infants, HCMC says. It can cause nausea as a side effect for women.

To educate patients, HCMC developed a teaching sheet about nitrous oxide use during labor and added the resource to existing comfort management hand-outs for labor and delivery. The sheet explains what nitrous oxide is and how it works, as well as details on potential side effects.