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Giving Birth: A Laughing Matter?

I’m not into pain. Not even a little bit. A fitness trainer once instructed me to push through my searing muscle ache, assuring me that “pain is weakness leaving the body.” My response: “This is me leaving the weight room and signing up for Zumba.”

Life’s full of pain. Why invite more?

It’ll come as no surprise, then, that my position on pain management during childbirth has always been an unequivocal “YES, PLEASE.” Upon arriving at the hospital to deliver my children, I told every human being who would listen, including the valet who took my car out front: “I’m going to need an epidural. A big one. Soon, probably. I’m one of those women. Just so’s ya know.”

I got my epidural — twice. And it even worked — once. The other time it failed and had to be re-administered late in the game. Which is really the only good reason for an anesthesiologist to be holding a long needle inches from a shrieking woman’s spine, instructing her to “hold very still” during body-quaking, soul-rattling contractions. But I digress.

My point is that labor and delivery are brutal. They’re absolute misery; I don’t care what anyone tells you. I did lots of unpleasant and involuntary things in the delivery room. I wept. I vomited. I may have soiled the delivery table; my husband has the good sense to deny it, and I have the good sense not to keep asking.

What I don’t remember doing is chuckling. Not once. And let me tell you, I could have used a good laugh.

But gurney-top giggles may soon be emanating from a delivery room near you. Laughing gas, that dental-office staple long ago abandoned for use in childbirth, is set to make a comeback in labor wards. The growing movement is being spurred by nurse midwives who say the drug offers easy, harmless relief for moms-to-be.

Nitrous oxide — commonly known as laughing gas for the euphoria it induces, and alternately called “sweet air” for its mild odor and taste — is commonly used by laboring women in Canada, Great Britain, and Scandinavian countries. It’s the same stuff that gives your whipped-cream charger its powerful “pssst,” but when mixed with oxygen and inhaled through a hand-held gas mask, it can take the edge off of labor pain. And it doesn’t hurt the baby.

Epidurals prevent the mother from getting out of bed; nitrous doesn’t. It can be used at any point during labor, so it’s great for gals who planned to go natural but decide too-late-for-an-epi that they need a little sump’n sump’n. Also, women can self-administer this drug with a mask they hold in their own hand, conjuring (for me, anyway) the utterly delightful image of nine-plus-months pregnant women huffing and tittering: “Wait, wait, just one second … (hiss) heh heh … No, I know. I’m gonna push. I am. I swear. I just … (hiss) (giggle) (snort) … “

The truth is that women have shoddy choices when it comes to relief from childbirth pain. On the might-as-well-be-voodoo side, there’s acupressure, massage, Lamaze breathing, and whirlpool tubs; on the wake-me-when-it’s-over side is the block-it-all-to-hell epidural.

I realize these options far exceed those of our cave-dwelling ancestresses, who probably just bit down on a mammoth tusk and sucked it up. But in a world where we can now prevent pregnancy via pills, patches, shots, sponges, implants, caps, condoms, and “rings,” why are our only childbirth choices numb-or-nothin’?

If nitrous oxide provides a much-needed middle ground — and a few unlikely chortles to boot — then it must be true what they say. Laughing gas really is the best medicine.


Published inColumnsParenting
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