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Chuckle though childbirth? More U.S. hospitals offering laughing gas during labor

Women looking for pain relief while giving birth are getting a new option that may remind them of the dentist’s office.

A clinic in Minneapolis, Minnesota, is joining the small but growing number of birthing centers in the U.S. to offer nitrous oxide, also known as laughing gas, to help patients get through delivery.

You may associate it more with cavities than babies, but nitrous oxide is commonly used around the world to ease the pain of labor. Now, it’s getting some attention in this country.

“It felt more like a middle ground than getting an epidural,” Jenna White, who used it while giving birth at the Minnesota Birth Center this month, told WCCO TV. “It’s totally patient controlled, I had complete control over when I took breaths and how many breaths to take.”

The gas — a combination of nitrous oxide and oxygen — is self-administered through a mask and acts very quickly, said Dr. Errol Norwitz, chairman of the department of obstetrics and gynecology at Tufts Medical Center in Boston. 

Epidurals are much more effective, but the gas is a safe, viable option for women looking for alternatives to the standard approach, he added. According to a report from the National Institutes of Health, newborns whose mothers used laughing gas had similar Apgar scores (a common measurement of newborn health) to babies whose mothers used other types of pain relief or no pain relief in labor.

“It’s used to just take the edge off the pain,” Norwitz told TODAY Parents. “There are some women who won’t need anything more... (but) having worked with it a lot, I will say that for most people, it doesn’t give adequate pain relief.”

It’s estimated just 1 percent of women in the U.S. have used nitrous oxide during birth, compared to 62 percent of women in the United Kingdom, according to an article published in the journal Birth: Issues in Perinatal Care.

The author concluded the gas is likely not more popular in U.S. delivery rooms because it’s “little known, outside of dentistry, lacking élan and pizzazz, with no companies or influential professional groups that stand to profit by its greater use.”

A woman using nitrous oxide during delivery may pay less than $100, while an epidural can cost up to $1,000, WCCO reported.

Just a handful of hospitals in the U.S. currently offer the gas, including Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston, which added the option last year. Tufts Medical Center plans to offer it, too, Norwitz said.

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