The origins of aromatherapy can be traced back centuries as major civilisations utilised it for religious, medical, and social purposes. Aromatherapy is the art of using the concentrated essences of aromatic plants, flowers, and resins, through the sense of smell and touch to deliver therapeutic properties that treat common ailments and promote good health and emotional wellbeing. Here we look at the risks and benefits of using aromatherapy in pregnancy and childbirth.
Essential oils are minute volatile molecules that can easily penetrate the skin and the nasal passages. Each oil has a distinct chemical composition that determines its scent, colour, volatility, and unique beneficial properties. When essential oils are inhaled, the tiny molecules are taken directly to the roof of the nose in the receptor cells of the olfactory system, the sensory system directly associated with the sense of smell.
The receptors send this information about aromas via the olfactory bulb to the brain’s limbic system, where sensory, emotional, and hormonal regulation occurs. As a result, the brain releases neurochemicals that may have sedative, relaxing, stimulating or even euphoric effects. Furthermore, these tiny aromatic molecules travel down the nasal passage to the lungs, where they are then defused into the bloodstream. When essential oils are applied to the skin, they are absorbed into the bloodstream through the sweat glands and the lymphatic system.
The process of pregnancy and childbirth is as much a psychological process as it is physical. Aromatherapy is a unique modality of herbal medicine that can effectively support this natural process when used under the guidance of a skilled professional. Essential oils behave as hormone and biochemical influencers during childbirth, which involves peak levels of the love and nurturing hormones of oxytocin and prolactin and the optimal functioning of the fight or flight hormones during the final stages of birth. Aromatherapy and essential oils can play an incredible role in alleviating common pregnancy complaints such as nausea, backache, anxiety, or fear.
In childbirth, aromatherapy can be incredibly helpful in relieving pain, reducing stress and tension, increasing the effectiveness of uterine activity to progress labour, and creating a calm environment where the birthing person can tune into the instinctive brain that needs to be activated during childbirth.
Due to the lack of available evidence on the safety of essential oil use during the first 12 weeks of pregnancy, direct skin contact with essential oils should be avoided until 13 weeks. Certain essential oils should be avoided until 37 weeks as they have the capacity to induce premature uterine contractions, and persons with G6PD (a hereditary deficiency of an enzyme Glucose‐6‐phosphate dehydrogenase) or diagnosed heart condition with abnormal or fast heartbeat should use caution when using essential oils. Some essential oils (citrus oils) are toxic when exposed to direct sunlight which may contribute to skin irritation. Some people may develop reactions to essential oils either due to level of concentration or individual sensitivities. Reactions can include nausea, headache, and skin irritation.
Aromatherapy can be an excellent tool to address the physical and emotional demands in pregnancy, childbirth, and postpartum. Pregnant and birthing persons can safely benefit from the therapeutic qualities of essential oils through inhalation, massage, showers, baths, compresses and diffusers. However, careful selection of appropriate oils, concentration levels (dilution), quality sourcing, and safety are crucial considerations when utilizing essential oils during childbirth and throughout the lifespan.
 Tanvisut, Rajavadi et al. “Efficacy of aromatherapy for reducing pain during labor: a randomized controlled trial.” Archives of gynecology and obstetrics vol. 297,5 (2018): 1145-1150. doi:10.1007/s00404-018-4700-1
 Kheirkhah, Massomeh et al. “Comparing the effects of aromatherapy with rose oils and warm foot bath on anxiety in the first stage of labor in nulliparous women.” Iranian Red Crescent medical journal vol. 16,9 e14455. 17 Aug. 2014, doi:10.5812/ircmj.14455
 Johnson, Scott A. Evidence-Based Essential Oil Therapy: The Ultimate Guide to the Therapeutic and Clinical Application of Essential Oils. Scott A. Johnson Professional Writing Services, LLC, 2018.
Feven was born and raised in Ethiopia and, in 2002, moved to Bermuda with her Bermudian husband. She and her husband have two children, a dog, several chickens, and a garden that keeps them busy and active. She is a passionate Doula, Childbirth Educator, Trainer, Montessori Early Childhood Educator, and is certified in Aromatherapy for Childbirth. Over the years, Feven has become increasingly involved in birth and parenting education advocacy work on the island and strives to approach her work through a culturally responsive, evidence and trauma informed lenses. While her roles keep her very busy, she feels incredibly privileged to have companioned families through their birth and parenting journeys. Feven is an avid reader and lifelong learner, loves to run, cook and share meals and conversations with friends and family.
Find contact details for Feven in our Maternal Health Directory here.