Christina Szalinski writes about science for the American Society for Cell Biology. She earned a Ph.D. from the University of Pittsburgh in Cell Biology and Molecular Physiology. She’s a fan of the PBS TV show, Call the Midwife. She was pregnant last year and ecstatic over becoming a mother. But she was not at all excited about facing the pain of childbirth.

Szalinski writes on the online news website, Slate, that “labor is no laughing matter” but, thanks to that PBS TV show she enjoys, she found a way to confront the inevitable labor pains coming her way with a smile on her face, even when the contractions were at their strongest. Her secret? It’s a gas.

Call the Midwife is based on the memoirs of a British midwife in the 1950s. On the episode that caught Szalinski’s attention, the patient calls for “the gas!” so the midwife runs to retrieve a tank from her car. After a whiff or two, the TV patient goes from extreme distress to calm serenity. Whatever that stuff was, Szalinski wanted it in her delivery room, too.

Turns out the euphoria-inducing gas is nitrous oxide, the same stuff dentists rely on to calm the frazzled nerves of frightened dental patients. It is administered differently in the labor room than it is in the dentist’s office but is commonly used during childbirth in Australia, Canada, the United Kingdom, and Scandinavia. It is not, however, used very often in the United States.

Nitrous, as it’s commonly referred to, works differently than the pain-relieving measures usually associated with childbirth. Nitrous blocks the feeling of pain but doesn’t immobilize a woman like an epidural does. The pain remains but the woman remains in control but distanced from it, according to Shauna Zurawski, who used it when her son was born. She says that, after just one breath, she felt “so relieved...anxiety gone.”

Nitrous is safe to use in a birthing tub and no IV or catheter is needed. Nitrous can be used at any stage of labor or delivery and the woman is in complete control over how much, how little, and when it is used. Nitrous produces no concerning side effects to either mother or child. According to Szalinski, “it’s everything I want during childbirth.”

In a dentist’s office, a patient is hooked up to a steady supply of nitrous that continues to flow throughout the dental procedure. In the delivery room, the woman is given a mask to breathe from whenever she feels the need. The nitrous effect lasts only a few seconds but the mother, with the mask in hand, can breathe in more any time she wants it. The risk of overdose is small because a too-drowsy woman will simply drop the mask if she becomes too relaxed to hold it in place.

Nitrous oxide in US delivery rooms is rare at the moment. Szalinski had to choose between a hospital in her healthcare provider’s network and a hospital that offered the gas. She hopes a time will come, soon, when women don’t have to make that choice.

Source: Szalinski, Christina. “Bring Me the Gas!” Slate. The Slate Group / Graham Holdings Company. n.d. Web. Jan 16, 2014.