EVERYTHING you need to know about aromatherapy in pregnancy & labour

Posted by Katherine Mugan on

Are aromatherapy and essential oils really effective or is it just a load of superstitious nonsense? Aromatherapy, like all complementary therapies, is divisive among health professionals. Some say they’ve seen it work in action again and again, others say there just isn’t enough evidence to prove it’s the aromatherapy working and not one of many other variables. I’ve taken an in-depth look at the studies (yes, every single study I could find!) and expert advice and determined that there is some small-scale evidence that aromatherapy really can help with certain pregnancy, labour and postpartum problems, and midwives are often big supporters of the efficacy of aromas and oils, having seen them work in practice again and again (although obstetricians are less convinced).

So what’s my take on all this? For my part, I’ve been willing to keep an open mind and try anything that’s safe for me and the baby. Towards the end of my pregnancy, at 41 weeks, I had a complementary therapy session with an NHS midwife to try to induce my postdates pregnancy towards labour. A massage with essential oils, reflexology, and a sweep later, I was very relaxed (well, at least until the sweep), but had it had any effect? I didn’t go into labour there and then, or in the following week even, but when I went for my medical induction at 42 weeks, both the baby and I were ready to go and the induction invention needed was minor, and labour was quick and easy. Did it make a difference? I can’t say. But I would do it again.

I’d also diligently practised hypnobirthing throughout my pregnancy and I was all set to use aromatherapy as a relaxation technique. It was offered in my birth centre. But because I ended up having an induction I never made it to the birth centre.

But enough about me, let’s look at the evidence to see what science there is behind the use of aromatherapy in labour, as well as its usefulness and safety for you and baby throughout pregnancy and postpartum. Writing this article has been something of a labour of love. A huge amount of reading and research has gone into drawing out the uses, benefits and science to back up any claims. I hope you find it useful.

References are noted in square brackets and can all be found towards the bottom of the page.

Are aromatherapy and essential oils safe?

No mother is going to agree to be in a trial to determine the safety of a substance that could potentially cause harm to her baby. So there aren’t many specific safety studies that can be relied on to tell us that essential oils are 100% safe. But what we do have is information on what oils are frequently used by mothers, either in aromatherapy or as ingredients in other products. And where mothers who use these oils are compared with the background population of mothers who don’t, some conclusions can be drawn as to whether these oils have had any concerning effects, or if they appear to be safe. So let’s now look at some of the most common worries about essential oils.

General essential oil safety

It’s always important to properly understand how to use any essential oils before you use them. It’s always a good idea to consult a qualified practitioner before getting started. Whether you’re pregnant or not, remember that:

undiluted essential oils are highly toxic and should not be swallowed during pregnancy or at any other time. Undiluted essential oils should also not be applied to the skin as they can cause severe irritation and/or allergy. If you swallow an essential oil you should seek immediate medical advice. [3]

General precautions for using essential oils in pregnancy and labour

  • Do not take essential oils internally. Don’t eat or drink them.
  • Exercise caution if using essential oils directly on your skin. Ensure they’re diluted to the recommended concentration (usually 1-2%, but check for each oil or blend). And watch out for any reaction.
  • Avoid contact of essential oils with sensitive areas like nose, eyes, face.
  • Wash hands thoroughly after blending oils or giving a massage.
  • Keep essential oils away from naked flames.
  • Keep essential oils correctly stored in a locked fridge (especially for oils that degrade, like citrus oils) and out of reach of children.
  • Sunbathing after citrus massage makes sunburn more likely.
  • Do not add essential oils to the birthing pool. (NHS trusts don’t all agree on whether this is a necessary precaution or not. But they do agree that Peppermint should never be added to the birthing pool or bath).
  • Not all oils are suitable at all times of pregnancy or labour. Refer to the notes on each oil lower down in this article.
  • Some oils should never be used in pregnancy, labour or postpartum. Refer to the notes on each oil below.
  • When administering essential oils consider the comfort and potential complications to other people in the room.
  • Consider allergies.

[1]

Essential oils & allergies

Essential oils can trigger allergies just like any other substance. Consider whether you or anyone else who’ll be exposed to the aromatherapy (e.g. partner or other kids in the same room, if you’re using a diffuser) have any allergies when choosing your oils. For example:

  • For a citrus allergy: avoid any oil with citrus in its botanical name (including Neroli).
  • For a nut allergy: avoid carrier oils produced from nuts. Grapeseed oil is usually a safe alternative.
  • For a gluten allergy: avoid wheatgerm oil.
  • For hayfever: avoid floral oils, including lavender. Chamomile is the oil of choice for mothers with hayfever, but check the precautions associated with it.

[1]

When are essential oils safe to be used in pregnancy and labour?

In general, if you have a normal, low-risk pregnancy you should be able to use aromatherapy and essential oils, via massage or otherwise.

In the right circumstances, essential oils are very safe. In studies where essential oils that were already expected to be safe were used on mums, adverse reactions were noted and were very rare and all mildin nature, limited to nausea/vomiting, rash/itching and hayfever/watery eyes. The aromatherapy in these studies was of course carried out by trained midwife practitioners and only on mums who should be safe to use essential oils. [9,23]

Indicators for using essential oils in labour

  • You are full term - i.e. 37 weeks pregnant and over
  • You’re having one baby
  • Your baby is presenting head down (cephalic) - not breech
  • You go into labour spontaneously
  • You have no known or expected problems for yourself or your baby

[2]

General contraindications for aromatherapy in pregnancy and labour

You shouldn’t use essential oils if you have:

  • Vaginal bleeding
  • Placenta praevia
  • Underlying medical conditions e.g. epilepsy, diabetes, high blood pressure
  • Your baby has an unstable lie - i.e. they’re not always head down
  • You’re having more than one baby

[2,4]

Essential oils in food & drink during pregnancy

The UKTIS (UK Teratology Information Service) is a not-for-profit organisation funded by Public Health England to provide information on the safe use of medicines and substances to healthcare professionals. They have published a fact sheet that explains that the essential oils that are found in food and drink should be safe for you and your baby during pregnancy. [3]

Mainstream, widely available food and drinks should conform to this advice. But if you’re buying unbranded or homemade food from a fair, or online, or you’re given something made by a friend that you suspect contains essential oils for flavouring or scent, it would be sensible to check what the ingredients are and to compare with the oils mentioned below to check that you’re happy to consume them in the quantities present.

Essential oils in cosmetics & shampoo

Some mums are concerned about the contents of their beauty regime during pregnancy. It’s a valid concern and there are definitely some ingredients you may wish to avoid (like retinol/vitamin A, for example, or some of the harsher chemicals).

But when it comes to the essential oils included, like with food and drink, any mainstream brand is expected to be safe to use as the concentration of any oils included will likely be very low. [3]

Can essential oils cause miscarriage?

The experts and evidence are split on whether essential oils can cause miscarriage.

UKTIS points out that up to 1 in 5 pregnancies naturally ends in miscarriage. To minimise any possible risks of essential oils making a pregnancy loss any more likely, their excellent fact sheet [3] explains that are certain precautions you should take:

  • Avoid taking essential oils by mouth in larger quantities. A lot of essential oils are toxic in anything more than very small quantities. They can poison you, which can lead to your body being unable to support your pregnancy.
  • Avoid essential oils that can cause uterine contractions at any stage of pregnancy.
  • As a precaution, you may also wish to avoid aromatherapy massage in the first trimester.

According to UKTIS, historically, essential oils were sometimes used in attempts to abort pregnancies. It’s now thought that the essential oils played a part in successful abortions using this method, but it wasn’t the action of any herb or fragrance specifically. Instead, it was the act of poisoning the mother that caused the abortion and any toxic substance would have a similar effect. As essential oils are known to be toxic when consumed in any significant quantity, there could well be a risk.

However, this approach could reflect an abundance of caution. While essential oils should never be ingested other than when they pop up in regular food and drinks, some midwives consider the risks associated with diluted oil having contact with skin to be minimal.

In some cases, NHS midwives who are pregnant themselves, and who are regularly exposed to essential oils when they administer aromatherapy to mothers in their care are not expected to have any problems with miscarriage risk [1], but in other studies, midwives have avoided Peppermint and Clary Sage [26] as a precaution.

And the respected handbook Essential Oil Safety: A Guide for Health Care Professionals by Tisserand and Balacs (1999) suggests that mothers who have attempted to deliberately cause miscarriage using essential oils have failed.

It’s of course up to you how you interpret these differing viewpoints. But if you’re cautious, the above recommendations wouldn’t be a bad place to start. If you follow these guidelines and always consult a professional before using essential oils, you should be able to use many oils safely without increasing the risk of miscarriage.

Are essential oils linked to birth defects?

Around one in 40 babies are born with a birth defect. No study has proven a link between the use of essential oils and birth defects. Some studies have shown that some oils are safe to use as they’ve been widely used and no rise in birth defects has been observed. For example, a small study of 170 pregnant women who used products containing camphor to relieve cold symptoms in early pregnancy showed that their babies were no more likely to be born with birth defects [3].

A list of essential oils that are thought to be safe in pregnancy for both you and your baby is included below.

Aromatherapy in Pregnancy

Which essential oils are safe & beneficial in pregnancy?

A number of oils are widely used by pregnant women, midwives and doctors who undertake studies involving pregnant and labouring mothers. Some have good, proven health benefits, while others have less evidence to back up anecdotal health claims, but are considered safe to use nonetheless.

Always consult a qualified aromatherapist or midwife to check that these oils are safe to use in your own circumstances.

27 Essential Oils Safe to Use in Pregnancy

Essential oils safe to use in pregnancy

  • Bergamot
  • Black pepper
  • Cajeput
  • Camphor
  • Chamomile (Roman chamomile) (generally considered safe)
  • Citronella
  • Clove
  • Cypress
  • Eucalyptus
  • Geranium (some consider safe)
  • Ginger
  • Grapefruit
  • Grapeseed oil
  • Jasmine (some consider safe from full term only)
  • Lavender (generally considered safe)
  • Lemon
  • Lime
  • Mandarin (also Tangerine)
  • Neroli (Orange Blossom)
  • Niaouli
  • Orange (Sweet Orange)
  • Peppermint
  • Pine (Pine Needle)
  • Rose (usually considered safe from the third trimester)
  • Sandalwood (Australian Sandalwood)
  • Tea tree
  • Ylang ylang

Why are these oils included on this list of safe oils? Some oils are recommended by NHS (UK National Health Service) midwives, others by expert aromatherapists, and others have been used in medical trials.

Which essential oils are dangerous in pregnancy?

44 essential oils that could be dangerous in pregnancy

All essential oils are dangerous during pregnancy or otherwise in too high a dose; they can be toxic if you eat them, or irritate your skin. However, some oils are specifically not recommended in pregnancy as they’re considered harmful. You may prefer not to use them.

There isn’t any research I’ve uncovered to back this up, but consulting reference works produced by a number of respected aromatherapists, and pooling their collective wisdom, it could be useful to avoid:

  • Aniseed
  • Bachu
  • Basil
  • Bay
  • Bitter Almonds
  • Boldo
  • Calamus
  • Camphor
  • Caraway
  • Cedar
  • Chamomile
  • Cinnamon
  • Clary Sage
  • Clove
  • Cypress
  • Dill
  • Fennel
  • Horseradish
  • Hyssop
  • Jasmine
  • Juniper
  • Marjoram
  • Mugwort
  • Mustard
  • Myrrh
  • Nutmeg
  • Oreganum
  • Pennyroyal
  • Peppermint
  • Rose
  • Rosemary
  • Rue
  • Sage
  • Sassafras
  • Savin
  • Savoury
  • Spanish Lavender
  • Spanish Sage
  • Star Anise
  • Tansy
  • Thuja
  • Thyme
  • Wintergreen
  • Wormseed

[34,35,36,37]

You’ll notice that some of the botanicals that are included on the list of safe oils are also included on this list of unsafe oils. I think that goes to show that there is a lot of anecdotal and experiential practice in the world of aromatherapy, with little large-scale research that has been funded to give definitive answers. Some practitioners are happy with some plants for pregnant women, while others aren’t.

Aromatherapy for Labour

Are essential oils safe to use in labour?

Yes, there are a number of essential oils that midwives in the UK recommend for use in labour for the benefits of relaxation and labour augmentation (that is, making it all happen faster and easier).

The NHS uses aromatherapy on women who have qualified for a birth in a midwife-led birthing unit. This typically means ladies with a singleton pregnancy (you’re having one baby), and an uncomplicated, low-risk pregnancy that has come to term (37 weeks plus), with a straightforward, spontaneous labour. [1]

Essential oils safe to use in labour

29 essential oils safe and beneficial for labour

These oils are generally expected to be safe in intrapartum (labour) aromatherapy:

  • Bergamot
  • Black pepper
  • Cajeput
  • Camphor
  • Chamomile (Roman chamomile)
  • Citronella
  • Clary sage
  • Clove
  • Cypress
  • Eucalyptus
  • Frankincense
  • Geranium (some consider safe)
  • Ginger
  • Grapefruit
  • Grapeseed oil
  • Jasmine
  • Lavender
  • Lemon
  • Lime
  • Mandarin (also Tangerine)
  • Neroli (Orange Blossom)
  • Niaouli
  • Orange (Sweet Orange)
  • Peppermint
  • Pine (Pine Needle)
  • Rose
  • Sandalwood (Australian Sandalwood)
  • Tea tree
  • Ylang ylang

Why are these oils included on this list of safe oils? Some oils are recommended by NHS (UK National Health Service) midwives, others by expert aromatherapists, and others have been used in medical trials.

The expected benefits, and precautions to take with each oil during labour are laid out below in the more detailed information on all oils mentioned.

Aromatherapy Postpartum

Are essential oils safe to use postpartum?

Midwives and medical research professionals regularly recommend using some essential oils for relaxation, mood improvement and wound healing in the postpartum period.

Essential oils recommended postpartum

12 essential oils for postpartum recovery and healing

These oils are recommended by aromatherapists, midwives and researchers to use postpartum:

  • Chamomile (Roman chamomile)
  • Clary sage
  • Geranium
  • Grapefruit
  • Grapeseed oil (carrier oil)
  • Jasmine
  • Lavender
  • Mandarin
  • Myrrh
  • Neroli
  • Orange (Sweet orange)
  • Rose
  • Tea tree

[1,2,3,5,9,17,23]

The expected benefits and precautions to take with each oil during labour are laid out below in the more detailed information on all oils mentioned.

Breastfeeding & Aromatherapy

Can essential oil aromatherapy help breastfeeding?

It’s thought that because using aromatherapy techniques during labour can improve bonding with your newborn and so increase breastfeeding outcome. Presumably, this is because a mother who’s using aromatherapy is likely to have an ‘easier’, more pain-free labour, and the flow of oxytocin is improved. [2]

In the postpartum period, essential oils can also help you to relax, which is important for breastfeeding success, it’s said that they can improve your milk supply and they can help you manage breastfeeding pains and problems. [4,33]

Are essential oils safe and when breastfeeding?

Aromatherapy is used in practice by at least one NHS neonatal unit, although they don’t specify which oils they use. However, a review of the medical literature on essential oils in breast

[33,34]

Essential oils safe to use when breastfeeding

Remember when you’re breastfeeding, almost everything you eat or apply to your body ends up in your breast milk. There’s very little evidence to say either way whether essential oils are or are not safe for you to use during breastfeeding. A number of oils are widely recommended by blogs, but only a few are noted as being used by health professionals.

A study in Japan tested the effects of essential oils used the following oils on breastfeeding mothers:

  • Lavender
  • Ylang Ylang
  • Citron
  • Rosewood
  • Sweet Orange

Blended to a concentration of less than 2% in a carrier of sweet almond oil. [39]

Galactogogues: Essential oils that increase milk supply

There is very little evidence that essential oils can help to increase milk supply. While research has been done into the galactagogic properties a number of different kinds of substances, the only essential oil that’s mentioned in medical literature as potentially having some weight of evidence behind it is fennel.

Eight different studies have suggested that fennel oil could replicate the effect of oestrogen on the body, in a very mild way. This may then increase milk supply or assist with your left down. The only downside noted is the potential toxicity (as with all essential oils) if you take too much. [34]

Geranium and Jasmine have also been recommended to aromatherapy-practising midwives to use on mothers needing to stimulate milk flow. [4]

Essential oils that decrease milk supply

Again, little scientific research has been done into essential oils drying up mothers’ supply of breastmilk. Anecdotally, many people think that peppermint oil reduces milk supply by lowering the body temperature, but that hasn’t been proven.

Using essential oils on nipples

Using an oil on your nipples may help to relieve the painful dryness and cracking most of us suffer with early on in breastfeeding. However, generally, we’re not advised to put anything on our nipples other than a baby-safe cream like lanolin ointment. Anything else that you do put on would definitely need to be washed off before breastfeeding. I can’t comment on whether any oil would absorb into the milk supply, but that could be undesirable, given that higher concentrations of oils can be poisonous when consumed.

Aromatherapy for Babies

Are essential oils safe to use on babies?

While one NHS department cautions against using essential oils on your baby, saying that it should never be done [1], there are medical studies in which professionals have administered oils to infants. The studies found that the scent of vanilla oil wasn’t useful in distracting babies from the pain of a heel prick test [31], but a tummy massage with lavender oil was effective in reducing the symptoms of colic [32].

How to use essential oils in pregnancy & labour

Guidelines

  • Avoid massage directly over varicose veins.
  • Use caution when administering essential oils to women with severe asthma/respiratory
  • problems.
  • Avoid hypotensive oils if diastolic blood pressure lower than 60 or if mother prone to postural hypotension or fainting in pregnancy.
  • Avoid abdominal massage if the placenta is situated on the anterior wall or anyone with a history of antepartum haemorrhage or placenta praevia.
  • Avoid sedating essential oils after the administration of pethidine.

[1]

Hypotensive oils

From the list of oils considered safe, above, the following oils are hypotensive (which means that they lower blood pressure) and shouldn’t be used on mums with already low blood pressure:

  • Bergamot
  • Geranium
  • Lavender
  • Neroli
  • Ylang Ylang

Sedating oils

  • Chamomile
  • Lavender
  • Mandarin
  • Ylang Ylang

Always still consider what you’re trying to achieve, the effects of each oil, and the safety guidelines when mixing any recipe.

Mixing essential oils

Typically, you should be using a concentration of 2% or less of essential oils in a carrier blend.

  1. Choose a suitable carrier oil such as sweet almond oil or grapeseed oil.
  2. Add the correct number of drops to make up the concentration you require, referring to the table below.
  3. For a single oil, add the full number of drops for that concentration for that oil. For a blend with two or more oils, add the correct number of drops in total - not of each oil.
Number of drops for different concentrations

Concentration required

Number of drops of essential oil

5ml carrier oil

10 ml carrier oil

20 ml carrier oil

1% blend

1

2

4

1.5% blend

-

3

6

2% blend

2

4

8

[1]

How to administer oils

There are so many different ways you can use essential oils [1,2]:

Massage

  1. Mix the required number of drops with a carrier oil to make the concentration you want - use the table above for reference.
  2. Massage the mixed oil into the back, neck, arms, hands, legs, feet or abdomen with your hands.

Foot Bath

  1. Blend 2-3 drops of essential oil with 2mls of carrier oil
  2. Add to the water of a warm footbath.

Compresses

How to use a hot compress
  1. Blend 2-3 drops of essential oil with 2mls of carrier oil.
  2. Add to a bowl of warm water and soak the compress or flannel in the water.
  3. Wring it out and apply to the skin.
How to use a cold compress

A cold compress is more suitable to use with cooling oils like peppermint.

  1. Blend 2-3 drops of essential oil with 2mls of carrier oil.
  2. Add to a bowl of cold water and soak the compress or flannel in the water.
  3. Wring it out and apply to the skin.

Inhalation

How to inhale essential oils
  1. Place 1 drop on a taper, cloth, tissue or cotton wool ball.
  2. Hold under the nose and inhale.
  3. Do not let the oil touch the skin.

Direct application to skin

This can potentially cause skin irritation and should be used with caution.

Diffusers

At home, you can use a diffuser as long as no one else in the house is expected to have an adverse reaction to the oils being used. Some oils induce nausea, while others like flower-based oils, or citrus, can trigger allergic reactions and hayfever.

In a shared care area, like on a maternity ward, diffusers aren’t recommended as they’ll affect other labouring mums.

To use a diffuser:
  1. Fill with normal tap water, making sure not to exceed any maximum water mark.
  2. Drop in 5 to 12 drops of oil.
  3. Switch the diffuser on, or place a lighted tea light underneath if it’s a burner diffuser.

In the bath or birthing pool

Some birth units advise against using essential oils in the birthing pool, while others do use them. The only consistency is the suggestion not to use cooling oils like eucalyptus and peppermint.

Ingesting essential oils

I haven’t been able to find any significant guidance on eating or drinking essential oils specifically during pregnancy and labour (apart from as regular food ingredients in everyday food - see above). This suggests to me that there isn’t a proven safe way to ingest oils and it would probably be best avoided.

Scented candles

I haven’t come across any studies specifically looking at the safety or effectiveness of essential oil candles during pregnancy. However, a number of NHS maternity services suggest that you use scented candles to relax during the early phases of labour, or during a home birth. None of these sources mention any concerns about the safety of any essential oil components in the candles. [41,43]

But be careful! They also caution that a naked flame is a hazard, especially when you’re likely to be less aware of your surroundings during labour, and doubly when there could be an oxygen supply nearby - an oxygen tank, oxygen line into a hospital room, or a supply of Entonox (gas and air). Most birth centres seem not to allow flame candles and instead suggest that you bring electric candles or fairy lights for mood lighting instead. [42,44]

Can you treat common pregnancy ailments with essential oils?

Aromatherapy is recommended by some health professionals for the treatment of a number of pregnancy complaints, including nausea, oedema (excess fluid retention), headaches, migraines, fear & anxiety, insomnia, low mood, constipation, diarrhoea, haemorrhoids, thrush, back pain or SPD, cramps, carpal tunnel syndrome, varicose veins, high blood pressure and colds. Essential oils are also used by midwives to try to induce labour. [1,2,3,4,5,6,7]

Let’s take a closer look at which oils are recommended to counter each problem, along with any evidence from medical studies where it exists.

Low Appetite

Midwives recommend Black Pepper oil to improve a suppressed appetite in pregnancy.

Back Pain, Hip Pain, SPD

For pain relief in pregnancy, use Chamomile (Roman Chamomile) and Lavender oils.

A large study found Chamomile to be effective in alleviating pain during labour. Perhaps it could also help muscular back pain in pregnancy as experts recommend Chamomile for muscular aches. Also, a review of 3 RCTs showed labour pain relief with lavender. [9,17]

Carpal Tunnel Syndrome

Cypress oil is recommended by some NHS midwives to treat carpal tunnel syndrome because it could increase circulation and so reduce inflammation.

Colds & Sore Throats

To prevent colds midwives use Eucalyptus oil. Once a cold has struck, to combat the symptoms, including sore throats and blocked noses, try Black Pepper, Cajeput, Camphor, Grapefruit, Niaouli, Peppermint and Pine Needle.

Constipation

According to midwives and aromatherapists best essential oils to treat that oh-so-common pregnancy problem, constipation are Bergamot, Black Pepper and Orange (Sweet Orange).

Cramps

Some essential oils have anti-spasmodic properties. That means that they stop muscles from cramping and help them to relax. Bergamot, Black Pepper and Mandarin (a.k.a. Tangerine) are recommended for use by aromatherapy-trained midwives to relieve spasms. Lavender oil is also suggested as a smooth muscle relaxant.

Diarrhoea

Peppermint oil is recommended by midwives to counter the pregnancy runs.

Fear & Anxiety

Fear and anxiety are so common in pregnancy and in labour. You don’t know what to expect from labour (or you do, and you’re worried about going through it again), you’re anxious about what life will be like with a baby and how you’ll cope, or you’re stressed about how different you feel compared with your normal self, and how little you seem to achieve each day when you’re carrying around your enormous bump. There are so many reasons why mums-to-be experience fear and anxiety. Antenatal anxiety is slowly being more understood.

To uplift your mood and improve your energy and zest for life, midwives and aromatherapists use aromatherapy with Grapefruit, Mandarin (also known as Tangerine), Orange (Sweet Orange), Peppermint, Rose and Ylang Ylang oils.

Headaches & Migraines

Pregnancy headaches and migraines are treated by midwives and aromatherapists with Lavender oil or Peppermint oil. Choose lavender to relieve your headache and relax, while the alternative, peppermint will invigorate you instead.

Heartburn

Heartburn is incredibly common during pregnancy. Essential oils Black Pepper and Peppermint could provide some relief.

I’ve dedicated a whole article looking into 30 evidence-based indigestion remedies.

Haemorrhoids

Haemorrhoids, or piles, often strike in pregnancy because of the reduces blood flow away from the rectal area, and the excess pressure from your growing womb above. Administering the essential oil of Cypress (via a safe way - definitely not to the sensitive skin down there!!) is said to improve blood flow and gradually relieve the piles.

High Blood Pressure

High blood pressure during pregnancy is a serious concern and something that will be carefully monitored and managed by your midwife. They might recommend aromatherapy with hypotensive oils like Bergamot, Geranium, Neroli (Orange Blossom) or Ylang Ylang.

Insomnia

So many pregnant mums struggle to sleep. I barely slept more than 3 or 4 hours a night during the last month, what with restlessness, worry, hip pain and not being able to turn over at a speed greater than a beached whale.

Sedating oils are what you’re looking for to combat insomnia. Those suggested by midwives are Chamomile (Roman Chamomile), Lavender, Mandarin (a.k.a. Tangerine), Orange (Sweet Orange) and Ylang Ylang.

Low Mood & Depression

Uplifting oils that will help you out with feelings of hopelessness and depression, and give you more energy to face the day are Geranium, Grapefruit, Lemon, Lime, Mandarin (also Tangerine), Neroli (Orange Blossom) and Orange (Sweet Orange).

Nausea & Morning Sickness

There is some evidence that essential oils can relieve nausea both in the first trimester, throughout pregnancy and in labour. A small double-blind trial found Ginger significantly reduces nausea and vomiting. Randomized controlled trials have found the essential oil of Lemon to reduce nausea and vomiting in pregnancy and Neroli to do the same in the first stage of labour. And a large study of labouring women found they reported relief from nausea and vomiting with Peppermint. It could be worth trying in pregnancy too as Peppermint is often recommended for nausea. [19, 24, 26, 30]

So if you’re suffering from morning sickness or general feelings of nausea, midwives may recommend aromatherapy with Ginger, Grapefruit, Lemon, Neroli (Orange Blossom), or Peppermint oils.

Oedema (Excess Fluid Retention), Swelling & Swollen Feet

Midwives and aromatherapists use Black Pepper, Cypress and Sweet Orange oils to improve the body’s response to oedema, by triggering better blood flow to help the excess fluid to be moved out of problem areas and excreted.

Restless Legs

A randomised controlled study on 70 dialysis patients (not pregnant women) found lavender oil to be effective in reducing restless leg symptoms, with no adverse side effects. [45]

Sciatica

As I write, a study is recruiting participants to test the impact of Rose essential oil people presenting with back pain and sciatica in emergency departments.

Stretch Marks

Stretch marks, or striae gravidarum, are a big worry for lots of pregnant mums. I religiously rubbed belly butter into my bump for 6 months, but still ended up with stretch marks hitting home at 41+ weeks. There isn’t much evidence that there are reliable ways to prevent stretch marks. A lot of products make a lot of claims, but with limited proof.

The only medical trial to have proven positive results with an oil is a controlled study of nearly 150 women using bitter almond oil (prunus amygdalus var. amara). But even then, it wasn’t the oil that necessarily had an impact. 40% of the control group who didn’t use the almond oil got stretch marks. A group who applied the oil but did nothing else suffered to a similar degree. But a third group that spent 15 minutes daily massaging them with the almond oil had around half the incidence of stretch marks. Therefore, we can’t conclude that it was the oil, but the oil in combination with massage that was effective.

Other studies have found that using cocoa butter and olive oil weren’t effective. [47]

Thrush

Some midwives recommend bathing with a couple of drops of Tea Tree in the bath to relieve thrush naturally. No studies have been done to prove that this is effective.

Toothache

The Best Use of Medicine in Pregnancy service notes that many pregnant women use Clove oil to treat toothache. While there aren’t any studies to show that it’s safe and effective, there aren’t any known, proven adverse effects.

Varicose Veins

Cypress oil is thought to increase blood flow and therefore is suggested by midwives to combat varicose veins.

Good Essential Oils for Labour

Many midwives believe that aromatherapy is useful for inducing labour, and once labour is established, essential oils can be used in the intrapartum period to encourage labour to progress, to reduce anxiety and fear, to re-energise and combat exhaustion, to relieve feelings of nausea and to help deliver a retained placenta. [4]

Aromatherapy to induce & aid labour

There are two mechanisms through which aromatherapy can help to bring on and assist labour. Firstly, some oils promote uterine action. And secondly, some oils are calming and could help you relax, which means that your labour hormones can flow, and increased oxytocin will help to maintain and improve the effectiveness of your contractions. Oils that help to relieve pain can also help you to relax - who was ever relaxed while in intense pain?!

These are the oils recommended by professionals. We’ll examine where there’s evidence of these oils working after the suggestions:

Oils that encourage contractions

To help start  and progress labour:

  • Clary Sage accelerates labour.
  • Jasmine enhances contractions.
  • Lavender enhances contractions.

Relaxing oils for during labour

These oils calm, reduce anxiety and fear, or help you to relax with a sedating effect:

  • Bergamot reduces anxiety and relaxes.
  • Chamomile (Roman Chamomile) relaxes, calms and sedates.
  • Clary Sage reduces fear and anxiety.
  • Frankincense reduces fear and anxiety and deepens breathing. It’s noted for improving emotional stability, which is useful for the transitional stage of labour.
  • Grapefruit reduces fear and anxiety.
  • Jasmine reduces anxiety.
  • Lime relaxes and calms.
  • Mandarin is sedating.
  • Neroli relaxes and calms.
  • Peppermint reduces stress and anxiety.
  • Rose relaxes, calms and reduces anxiety.
  • Sandalwood (Australian Sandalwood) relaxes and calms.
  • Ylang Ylang relaxes, calms and sedates.

Oils for pain relief during labour

  • Bergamot
  • Clary Sage
  • Jasmine
  • Lavender

Oils to alleviate nausea in labour

  • Lemon
  • Neroli
  • Peppermint

Oils for a retained placenta

  • Clary Sage
  • Frankincense
  • Jasmine

[1,2,3,4,5,46]

Evidence for essential oils helping during labour

There are some studies that have proven the effectiveness of aromatherapy during labour. As with all other stages of pregnancy, there hasn’t really been enough research into the use of complementary therapies to draw many robust conclusions, and many studies have either been set up in a way that is hard for them to produce a very conclusive result (too few participants, a potential for bias etc). However, some evidence exists that suggests that it’s worth trying essential oils during labour to see if they work for you:

  • A large study found Chamomile to be effective in alleviating pain. [9]
  • A large study found Clary Sage to be effective in alleviating pain, and (with less certainty) that it reduces the need for oxytocin to help progress the labour. [9]
  • A review of 3 randomised controlled trials that were of good quality showed that mums experienced pain relief when using lavender during labour. [18]
  • A randomised controlled trial found citrus aurantium (Neroli) to reduce nausea and vomiting in the first stage of labour and to enhance mood. [19]
  • A large study of labouring women found they reported relief from nausea and vomiting with Peppermint. [26]

Essential oils for postpartum

After giving birth, your body has got so much healing to do, and your hormones are wildly swinging up and down, making your mood very hard to control. During this time, some midwives suggest that you can use aromatherapy for relaxation, to help combat anxieties, to improve your mood when you’re going through the baby blues and to help bring down all that pregnancy swelling by combating oedema. [4]

The following oils are suggested:

Perineal & Caesarean Healing

For healing wounds like episiotomy cuts, tears, caesarean section scars and stitches, trials have found that Lavender and an 8 oil blend of Chamomile, Grapefruit, Lavender, Mandarin, Myrrh, Neroli, Orange and Rose were both effective in helping to heal wounds after birth. A randomised controlled trial of 120 women saw that lavender reduced the redness around stitches. [20,21]

Midwives and aromatherapists also suggest Cypress and Tea Tree oils. [2,3,5]

Baby blue & postnatal depression

Clary Sage, Grapefruit and Jasmine are the recommended oils to help combat depressive feelings, and it also is said to reduce after pains. [1,2,3,4,5]

Fragrances & Blends

All the oils mentioned in this article as being safe for pregnancy, labour or postnatally are included below.

Blending

NHS midwives who practice antenatal and intrapartum aromatherapy advise that you should only use up to three essential oils per blend. [1]

Recipes

Examples of oils that blend well together are included in the table below.

Latin names & blending recommendations

Essential oil

Latin botanical name

Fragrance

Blends with

Bergamot

Citrus bergamia

Sweet, spicy, fruit, top note

Clary Sage, Grapefruit, Jasmine, Lavender

Black Pepper

Piper nigrum

Spicy, sharp

Bergamot, Clary Sage, Frankincense, Geranium, Lavender

Cajeput

Melaleuca leucadendra

Very high note, sweet, with herbaceous low note

Bergamot, Clove, Geranium, Lavender, Niaouli, Rose

Camphor

Cinnamomum camphora

Warm

Bergamot, Clove, Geranium, Lavender, Niaouli, Rose

Chamomile

(Roman Chamomile)

Anthemis nobilis

Fresh, clean, bitter grassy top notes with fruity apple and warm herbaceous low notes

Bergamot, Frankincense, other herbal/floral scents

Citronella

Cymbopogon nardus

Lemony, slightly sweet, top note

Clary Sage, Eucalyptus, Geranium, Lavender, Lemon, Peppermint

Clary Sage

Salvia sclarea

Powerful, heavy, sweet, nutty, top to middle note

Bergamot, Grapefruit, Jasmine, Lavender

Clove

Syzygium aromaticum

Warming, deep and spicy

Lemon, Orange, Clary Sage, Sandalwood

Cypress

Cupressus sempervirens

Light, fresh, pine, smoky low notes

Citrus oils, Frankincense, Clary Sage, Lavender, Geranium, Neroli, Black Pepper

Eucalyptus

Eucalyptus globulus

Fresh, sharp, piercing, top note

Lavender, Lemon, Pine

Frankincense

Boswellia Carteri

Middle to base note

Bergamot, Grapefruit, Clary Sage, Jasmine, Lavender

Geranium

Pelargonium Rosa

Strong floral with gentle apple notes

All oils, but particularly: Bergamot, Lavender, Black Pepper, Rose, Neroli, Sandalwood, Lemon, Jasmine, Sweet Orange

Ginger

Zingiber officinale

Sharp top note, fiery and sweet low note

Cajeput, Clove, Eucalyptus, Frankincense, Geranium, Lemon, Lime, Orange

Grapefruit

Citrus Paradisi

Light citrus, sweet, top note

Bergamot, Clary Sage, Jasmine, Lavender

Grapeseed Oil

Vitis vinifera

None

All - it's a carrier oil

Jasmine

Jasminum Officinale

Rich, warm, tea-like, leafy undertone, middle to base note

Bergamot, Clary Sage, Grapefruit, Lavender

Lavender

Lavendula Angustfolia

Floral, top note

Bergamot, Clary Sage, Grapefruit, Jasmine

Lemon

Citrus Limon

Clean, fresh, sharp with sweet notes, citrus

Any oil

Lime

Citrus Aurantifolia

Sharp, bittersweet, citrus

Other citrus oils, Neroli, Lavender, Geranium, Ylang Ylang, Cypress

Mandarin (Tangerine)

Citrus Reticulata

Delicate, sweet top note with slight warming low note

Bergamot, Black Pepper, Lavender, Sandalwood, Ylang Ylang, Geranium, Cypress

Myrrh

Commiphora myrrha

Herbaceous, woody, dry, smoky

Chamomile, Grapefruit, Lavender, Mandarin, Neroli, Orange, Rose

Neroli (Orange Blossom)

Citrus Aurantium

Clean floral top note, smooth and bitter low notes, not citrus

Bergamot, Geranium, Jasmine, Lavender, Lemon, Lime, Orange, Rose, Sandalwood, Ylang Ylang

Niaouli

Melaleuca Viridiflora

Camphorous top notes, eucalyptus low notes

Lavender, Lemon, Lime, Orange, Pine, Peppermint

Orange (Sweet Orange)

Citrus sinensis

Zesty, fresh, orange

Clove, Cypress, Frankincense, Geranium, Jasmine, Lavender, Neroli, Rose

Peppermint

Mentha Piperita

Cooling, refreshing

Many oils, particularly: Cypress, Mandarin, Niaouli, Pine

Pine (Pine Needle)

Pinus Sylvestris

Camphorous, sweet, woody and balsamic low notes

Clove, Cypress, Eucalyptus, Lavender, Niaouli,

Rose

Rosa Damascena

Sweet, floral, with dusky low notes

Bergamot, Chamomile, Clary Sage, Geranium, Jasmine, Lavender, Neroli, Orange, Sandalwood

Sandalwood (Australian Sandalwood)

Santalum Spicatum

Deep, woody, sweet and smooth low notes

Black Pepper, Cypress, Frankincense, Geranium, Jasmine, Lavender, Lemon, Neroli, Rose, Ylang Ylang

Sweet Almond

Amygdala Dulcis

Slight nutty smell

All - it's a carrier oil

Tea Tree

Melaleuca alternifolia

Fresh, sanitary

Clove, Cypress, Eucalyptus, Lavender, Mandarin, Orange

Ylang Ylang

Cananga odorata

Sweet, floral, exotic, heavy

Bergamot, Citronella, Clary Sage, Grapefruit, Jasmine, Lavender, Lemon, Neroli, Orange, Rose, Sandalwood



Research & References

If you want to find out more detail on a particular topic, or hear it straight from the horse’s mouth, these are all the guides and studies that I used to write this article.

Expert References

  1. Guidance for the use of Aromatherapy on the Birthing Unit, Flora Sollars (Midwife), Emily Josland (Midwife) Alison Dodds (Midwife) & Anna Hutchings (Midwife), Chelsea & Westminster Hospital, NHS Foundation Trust, 2013
  2. The use of Essential Oils: Aromatherapy and massage for late pregnancy, labour, birth and after your baby is born, Taunton & Somerset NHS Foundation Trust, Maternity, 2017
  3. Essential Oils, BUMPS (Best Use of Medicine in Pregnancy), UKTIS, 2014
  4. Aromatherapy in Pregnancy, NHS Tayside, accessed June 2018
  5. Complementary and Alternative Therapies: Induction of Labour, Association of Radical Midwives, 2001
  6. A third of fourth degree tear during childbirth, Oxford University Hospitals NHS Trust, 2018
  7. Pregnancy and Birth FAQs, Birth Choices, Buckingham Healthcare NHS Trust, accessed June 2018
  8. For some fragrance notes & blending recommendations: Naturally Thinking, accessed June 2018
  1. Breastfeeding Support on the Neonatal Unit: Information and Advice for Mothers, Sandwell & West Birmingham Hospitals NHS Trust, 2018
  2. Bartram’s Encyclopaedia of Herbal Medicine, Thomas Bartran, Fellow of National Institute of Medical Herbalists
  3. Natural Healing for Women, Susan Curtis and Romy Fraser, founders of Neals Yard Remedies
  4. Aromatherapy, Cathy Hopkins
  5. Clinical Aromatherapy: Essential Oils in Practice, Jane Buckle
  1. Guide to Taking Care of Your dōTERRA Essential Oil Diffusers, Accessed June 2018
  2. Pregnancy - Week By Week - 3rd Trimester - Week Thirty Eight, Start4Life, Accessed June 2018
  3. What to expect in the early stage of labour, University Hospital Southampton NHS Foundation Trust, Accessed June 2018
  4. Early Labour - The Latent Phase, Western Sussex Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, 2017
  5. Home birth, The Shrewsbury and Telford Hospital NHS Trust, 2018
  1. Aromatherapy Massage in Pregnancy and Labour, Clinical Guidelines, Mid Essex Hospital Services NHS Trust, 2012

Medical Evidence

If you’re really into the evidence, I’ve summarised the papers I’ve referenced that describe clinical trials and medical research into the use of aromatherapy and essential oils during pregnancy, labour, postpartum, while breastfeeding and on babies.

It’s worth noting that while this evidence may look overwhelmingly positive, it’s against a background of there really being little conclusive evidence overall because few large, reliable studies have been undertaken. Almost every meta-analysis or literature review states the need for more work to be done to better understand the effectiveness of aromatherapy and specific essential oils at various times of pregnancy and labour.

Please forgive my less than perfect referencing. With my limited time available in baby nap times, I’ve focused on getting the information presented and written in a way that’s understandable to a lay person, as well as giving enough information that you could google the study and find it, rather than aiming for perfect by-the-book referencing.

Studies in Labour

9. The use of aromatherapy in intrapartum midwifery practice an observational study.

Burns E, et al. Complement Ther Nurs Midwifery. 2000.

Over 8 years, the use of essential oils and the outcomes of 8,058 mums giving birth were studied. All types of birth were included, from routine vaginal birth to emergency caesarian section. The mums used aromatherapy through skin absorption and/or inhalation.

The study found:

  • two of the oils used, clary sage and chamomile, effectively relieved pain
  • mums who used aromatherapy were much less likely to use systemic opioids (e.g. pethidine) - 0.4% of aromatherapy mums vs. 6% of all mums
  • 1% of mums had a reaction to using oils, and all recorded reactions were mild

The authors concluded that ‘aromatherapy can be effective in reducing maternal anxiety, fear and/or pain during labour.’

10. Aromatherapy in childbirth: a pilot randomised controlled trial.

Randomized controlled trial

Burns E, et al. BJOG. 2007.

250 Italian mums undertook aromatherapy, while 262 studied were in the control group (no aromatherapy).

Aromatherapy appeared to have no significant impact on the chance of requiring:

  • Caesarean section
  • Ventouse
  • Kristeller manoeuvre
  • First stage augmentation
  • Second stage augmentation

And no change in the rates of spontaneous vaginal delivery was seen.

But there was a significant decrease in the rates at which the babies born required transfer to the NICU (neonatal intensive care unit). 2% of the control group babies were transferred, vs. none of the aromatherapy group.

Pain perception was reduced in the aromatherapy group for first-time mums.

The authors noted more research is needed to draw further statistically significant conclusions - not enough women were involved.

11. Aromatherapy and massage intrapartum service impact on use of analgesia and anesthesia in women in labor: a retrospective case note analysis.

Dhany AL, et al. J Altern Complement Med. 2012.

1079 mums received aromatherapy and massage and completed a service evaluation form. They were retrospectively analysed and compared with a group of the same number of mums giving birth without the service.

The rates of anaesthesia used in labour were reduced - less spinal epidural, spinal anaesthesia, general anaesthetic. These methods of pain relief were replaced with gas and air and TENS. Pethidine use didn’t change.

12. Aromatherapy for pain management in labour.

Smith CA, et al. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2011.

This Cochrane review of other studies compared randomised controlled trials looking at aromatherapy vs. a placebo vs. no treatment or other non-pharmacological forms of pain management in labour.

It concluded that ‘there is a lack of studies evaluating the role of aromatherapy for pain management in labour. Further research is needed before recommendations can be made for clinical practice.’

13. Pain management for women in labour: an overview of systematic reviews.

Jones L, et al. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2012.

Summarised the above Cochrane review to look across multiple pain management techniques.

It concluded that ‘there is insufficient evidence to make judgements on whether or not hypnosis, biofeedback, sterile water injection, aromatherapy, TENS, or parenteral opioids are more effective than placebo or other interventions for pain management in labour.

‘Most decisions regarding CAM use were made by midwives; only decisions on acupuncture were taken by obstetricians and midwives. Reasons given for using CAM were patient demand and perceived efficacy of CAM, particularly by midwives. Obstetricians were only partly convinced of the efficacy of CAM methods and their conviction varied with the type of unit they worked in.’

14. Use of complementary and alternative medicine in departments of obstetrics in Germany.

Münstedt K, et al. Forsch Komplementmed. 2009.

This study sent questionnaires to German maternity units. Just over 40% of units returned the questionnaire. Results showed that 97% of these departments offered acupuncture, 93% offered homeopathy and 77% offered aromatherapy.

15. Effects of delivery nursing care using essential oils on delivery stress response, anxiety during labor, and postpartum status anxiety

Hur MH, et al. Taehan Kanho Hakhoe Chi. 2005.

48 first-time mums with full term, & uncomplicated pregnancies were studies, 24 receiving essential oils and 24 not. It’s clearly a small study.

Mothers’ stress levels were gauged by measuring stress hormones in their blood and by asking them to rate their anxiety.

The authors found that essential oils could be effective in decreasing plasma epinephrine, norepinephrine (the stress response hormones measured in the blood). But, that could not actually be verified in a decrease in mother's reported anxiety.

16. Audit of an aromatherapy service in a maternity unit

Susan Mousley

A small Midlands maternity unit introduced aromatherapy in May 2000. This audit was to assess clinical effectiveness, maternal satisfaction and staff training needs. It concludes that the service ‘has been shown to be effective in normalising childbirth and increasing satisfaction of mothers in respect of their labour experiences.’


17. Aromatherapy for Laboring Women: A Meta-Analysis of Randomized Controlled Trials

Taizhen Luo, Meiling Huang, Huaan Xia, Yingchun Zeng, 2013

This meta-analysis (a review of other studies) looked for studies in Chinese and English and assessed them for their eligibility to be included in the analysis. Only 4 studies met the criteria required, which included having enough participants and having rigorous research practices that would not leave to a misleading or biased result.

‘Aromatherapy was effective in reducing the length of labor, but there were no statistically significant effects in the use of pharmacological analgesia, spontaneous vaginal delivery, caesarean delivery and assisted vaginal birth. Due to the limited number of articles identified, the evidence is not sufficiently convincing that aromatherapy is an effective therapy for laboring women.’

18. A Review of Randomized Clinical Trials on the Effect of Aromatherapy with Lavender on Labor Pain Relief

Makvandi S, Mirteimoori M, Najmabadi KM, Sadeghi R (2016)

This is another meta-analysis of 192 research papers. 3 randomised controlled trials (RCTs) met the criteria to be included in the systematic review.

Although the results of this review showed that mums had labour pain relief with lavender aromatherapy, it concluded that more rigorous RCTs of higher quality are required to achieve a precise result to be able to put any numbers on the impact.

19. Aromatherapy with citrus aurantium oil and anxiety during the first stage of labor

Namazi, S. Amir Ali Akbari, F. Mojab, A. Talebi, H. Alavi Majd, S. Jannesari

Iran Red Crescent Med J, 16 (6) (2014), p. E18371

A double-blinded, randomized, controlled clinical trial study using citrus oil. It showed that it is helpful in relieving the first stage labour pain, as well as being effective in controlling nausea and vomiting at the same time, along with having mood elevating properties.

Postnatal studies

20. Clinical trial of aromatherapy on postpartum mother's perineal healing

Hur MH, et al. Taehan Kanho Hakhoe Chi. 2004.

Clinical trial

Mums who had delivered vaginally with an episiotomy used a sitz bath or soap application with 8 essential oils: Lavender, Myrrh, Neroli, Rose, Grapefruit, Mandarin, Orange, and Roman Chamomile.

5 and 7 days after birth, compared with mums who didn’t use the oils, those who did, showed improved healing (on the REEDA scale of episiotomy healing - assessing Redness, Edema, Ecchymosis, Discharge and Approximation), and had fewer bacteria present in the wound site.

21. Healing advantages of lavender essential oil during episiotomy recovery: a clinical trial.

Randomized controlled trial

Vakilian K, et al. Complement Ther Clin Pract. 2011.

120 first-time mums one baby, without any acute and chronic disease or allergy, and who had undergone normal spontaneous vaginal delivery and episiotomy were studied. The experimental group were treated on the episiotomy site with lavender oil. The control group with povidone-iodine.

The results were that 10 days after birth, ‘25 out of 60 women in lavender group and 17 mothers in control group had no pain. There was no significant difference between two groups in surgery site complications. However, redness in lavender group was significantly less than controls’.

22. The psychological effects of aromatherapy-massage in healthy postpartum mothers.

Imura M, et al. J Midwifery Womens Health. 2006 Mar-Apr.

The authors concluded that ‘our results suggest that aromatherapy-massage might be an effective intervention for postpartum mothers to improve physical and mental status and to facilitate mother-infant interaction’.

Studies in Pregnancy

23. Effects of Aromatherapy Massage on Pregnant Women's Stress and Immune Function: A Longitudinal, Prospective, Randomized Controlled Trial.

Randomized controlled trial

Chen PJ, et al. J Altern Complement Med. 2017.

A small study of 52 women in Taipei treated half the mums with ‘70 min of aromatherapy massage with 2% lavender essential oil every other week (10 times in total) for 20 weeks; the control group received only routine prenatal care. In both groups, participants' salivary cortisol and immunoglobulin A (IgA) levels were collected before and after the intervention group received aromatherapy massage. … The pregnant women in the intervention group had lower salivary cortisol (p < 0.001) and higher IgA (p < 0.001) levels immediately after aromatherapy massage.’

But the study doesn’t draw out whether aromatherapy, massage or combination was effective. And as sampling was done immediately after the massage, we can’t be sure whether effects were momentary or long-term across the weeks in between the treatment.

24. The self-prescribed use of aromatherapy oils by pregnant women.

Sibbritt DW, et al. Women Birth. 2014.

This study looked at mums’ background use of aromatherapy.

‘15.2% of pregnant women self-prescribed aromatherapy. They were 1.57 times more likely to self-prescribe use of aromatherapy oils if they have allergies or hayfever, and 2.26 times more likely to self-prescribe use of aromatherapy oils if they have a urinary tract infection (UTI).’

For more information on how to avoid and relieve UTIs in pregnancy, check out my guide on evidence-based and natural methods.

The paper also notes that a number of aromatherapy oils are unsafe for use by pregnant women.

25. Aromatic childbirth: developing a clinical aromatherapy maternity program

Pam Conrad

‘The 10 essential oils, methods, inclusion and exclusion criteria in this program were identical to those used in the Burns et al. (2000) study, with long term safety data to support their use. At the conclusion of the pilot, nearly 50 percent of the interventions utilized two essential oils, lavender (Lavandula angustifolia) at 27 percent and mandarin (Citrus reticulata) at 22 percent. These were followed by rose (Rosa damescena) at 13 percent. (In the Burns et al. (2000) study, rose was rated by patients as most helpful for anxiety, followed by lavender.)

‘Anxiety (42 percent of patients), followed by pain (38 percent)’, were the most common reasons for a mum to use aromatherapy.

The methods of applying oils were: ‘Massage/skin application (51 percent) and inhalation (34 percent) were the most common methods of application. Dilution of all essential oils was 1-2 percent for all skin applications and spritzers.’

Safety concerns and reactions were also noted by the author:

‘Protocols were strictly followed and enforced with mother and baby safety as the most important aspect of our program.

‘The only reported negative reactions were rare and solely confined to dislike of scent. There were no reported negative side effects during this pilot.’

26. Aromatherapy in childbirth: An effective approach to care

Ethel Burns (2000)

This article went into some depth on the Burns et al (2000) study and was useful in drawing out the use of different oils. Largely it discusses how the trial was carried out and the propensity to use each of the oils. The points that I noted with interest that I hadn’t gleaned elsewhere were:

‘Pregnant midwives administering the trial avoided using peppermint or clary sage. Peppermint and clary sage have chemical constituents which may induce menstruation and are therefore best avoided in pregnancy(Lawless, 1996; Davis, 1993; Tiran, 1996).’

‘Negative effects: Aromatherapy was not found to be harmful. Out of a total of 8058 mothers, less than 1% (n= 100) reported associated symptoms which were normally very minor. These included: nausea/vomiting (n= 60); rash/itching (n= 15); hay fever/watery eyes (n= 3). There were nine reports of precipitate labour following aromatherapy administration. It is important to note that none of the nine reports of rapid labour resulted in a compromised mother or baby. Nausea and vomiting is a common feature of many labours and so it is difficult to attribute this to the essential oils with any certainty.’

For mums who already had children, ‘those in spontaneous labour who received clary sage, 70% did not subsequently require intravenous oxytocin to progress the labour.’

1104 mums used peppermint oil for nausea in labour. A significant proportion more of in the latent and established phases of labour reported it as helpful to relieve nausea than those who were neutral or didn’t find it helpful.


27. Clinical Aromatherapy: Essential Oils in Practice

By Jane Buckle

This book discussed a few interesting studies (which is why I’ve included it in this section on studies, rather than in the expert advice section):

Vutyavanich et al (1997), a double-blind trial with a control group using a placebo found that ginger essential oil was effective in decreasing pregnancy nausea and vomiting, with no adverse effects on the pregnancy.

A meta-analysis on the impact of ginger oil on several different types of nausea was inconclusive but noted that ginger generally came out on top when compared with a placebo (Ernst and Pittler, 2000).

Borelli et al and Boone and Shields (2005) also found that ginger is effective in pregnancy when they reviewed the literature on the subject. But a Cochrane review of the field concluded that it’s still inconclusive as to whether ginger really does have an impact.

Buckle also notes that essential oils have been used in some labour units in the UK since 1987, by trained staff, and otherwise, many mothers bring their own oils. She suggests that any adverse effects would surely have been noticed in all this time.

For pregnancy, she suggests that she believes that the risks of miscarriage are overstated, but it still could be wise to avoid aromatherapy if you’ve had previous miscarriages.

28. Physical and psychologic effects of aromatherapy inhalation on pregnant women: a randomized controlled trial.

Randomized controlled trial

Igarashi T. J Altern Complement Med. 2013.

Only 13 women were studied. At week 28 of a normal singleton pregnancy, they found that the parasympathetic nerve was stimulated significantly when mums inhaled essential oils. While this would indicate a calming feeling was experienced, no significant difference was measurable in the moods of the experimental women vs the control group.

29. Midwives' support for Complementary and Alternative Medicine: a literature review.

Hall HG, et al. Women Birth. 2012.

This study looked at whether midwives believe that complementary therapies are useful for mums. The authors conclude that ‘there is considerable support by midwives for the use of Complementary and Alternative Medicine by expectant women.’

‘The most popular therapies recommended by midwives are massage therapy, herbal medicines, relaxation techniques, nutritional supplements, aromatherapy, homeopathy and acupuncture. Midwives support the use Complementary and Alternative Medicine because they believe it is philosophically congruent; it provides safe alternatives to medical interventions; it supports the woman's autonomy, and; incorporating Complementary and Alternative Medicine can enhance their own professional autonomy.’

30. The effect of lemon inhalation aromatherapy on nausea and vomiting of pregnancy: a double-blinded, randomized, controlled clinical trial

Yavari Kia, F. Safajou, M. Shahnazi, H. Nazemiyeh

Iran Red Crescent Med J, 16 (3) (2014), p. E14360

A randomized clinical trial with 100 pregnant women with nausea and vomiting, some of whom received lemon essential oil to inhale when they felt sick, and others a placebo. The nausea, vomiting, and retch intensity were investigated 24 hours before and during the four days of treatment by means of PUQE-24 (24-hour Pregnancy Unique Quantification of Emesis). (I love that they’ve effectively called the measurement scale ‘puke’).

During treatment, on days 2 and 4, the lemon oil users were significantly less nauseous and vomited less.

47. Stretch marks during pregnancy: a review of topical prevention.

Korgavkar K, Wang F., Br J Dermatol. 2015 Mar;172(3):606-15. doi: 10.1111/bjd.13426. Epub 2015 Feb 8.

This review looked at different methods of preventing stretch marks. They concluded that there isn’t much evidence to go off, but that bitter almond oil and centella have some evidence from studies. Tretinoin was effective but probably can’t be used during pregnancy. Cocoa butter and olive oil didn’t have any positive evidence to show they worked and it was concluded that they aren’t effective.

Babies

31. The effects of olfactory stimulation and gender differences on pain responses in full-term infants.

Romantsik O, et al. Acta Paediatr. 2014.

69 full term babies that were undergoing a toe lance were studied. It was found that those given vanilla to inhale to distract them weren’t actually distracted and felt pain just as much as babies without the distraction.

The authors noted that studies show contradictory evidence as to whether smells can distract babies from pain or not. They found that vanilla wasn’t effective.

32. The effectiveness of aromatherapy massage using lavender oil as a treatment for infantile colic.

Randomized controlled trial

Çetinkaya B, et al. Int J Nurs Pract. 2012.

40 full term, healthy weight babies with signs of colic were studied. Those treated were massaged on the abdomen by mum with lavender oil. A control group received no oil or massage. The authors concluded that ‘the use of aromatherapy massage using lavender oil was found to be effective in reducing the symptoms of colic.’

I have wondered whether it’s the oil or the massage that was most effective.

Studies on Essential Oils Use During Breastfeeding

38. Oral galactagogues for increasing breast-milk production in mothers of non-hospitalised term infants

Siew Cheng Foong, May Loong Tan, Lisa A Marasco, Jacqueline J Ho, Wai Cheng Foong

Cochrane Pregnancy and Childbirth Group, First published: 10 April 2015

This review notes that studies by Abascal 2008, Bingel 1994, Bruckner 1993, Humphrey 2007, Low Dog 2009, Mills 2006, Mortel 2013, Romm 2010 have looked into the use of fennel essential oil to increase breastmilk supply. The conclusion is that is might be mildly oestrogenic, may stimulate breast growth and may assist with the let down, but it’s toxic in large quantities.

39. The Effect of Aromatherapy Treatment on Fatigue and Relaxation for Mothers during the Early Puerperal Period in Japan: A Pilot Study

Kyoko Asazawa, Yoshihiro Kato, Atsuko Yamaguchi and Asako Inoue, 2017

This study treated new mothers with aromatherapy. It was found to significantly relax mums and reduce fatigue.

Other Relevant Studies on Essential Oils

45. The Effect of Massage With Lavender Oil on Restless Leg Syndrome in Hemodialysis Patients: A Randomized Controlled Trial

Sayyed Hossein Hashemi, Ali Hajbagheri, and Mohammad Aghajani

Nurs Midwifery Stud. 2015 Dec

This randomized clinical trial study looked at 70 hemodialysis patients with restless leg syndrome. Those receiving a lavender oil massage for three weeks showed significantly fewer


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EVERYTHING you need to know about aromatherapy in pregnancy & labour | Are aromatherapy and essential oils really effective or is it just a load of superstitious nonsense? Here's all the evidence for and against to help you make the right decisions for your pregnancy, labour and baby. Safety guidelines, which essential oils to choose, how to treat nausea, colds, headaches, oedema & more.

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