Aromatherapy, a calm pregnancy and you
Pregnancy is a most wondrous time full of love, joy and anticipation about the new life growing within you. As it can also be a time of physical, mental and emotional upheaval, you’ll need plenty of support, and aromatherapy can play a part in this.
The Power of Aroma, a book compiled by Joanne Rippin with a team of aromatherapists, says: “Together with the ever-important trio of exercise, good diet and rest, essential oils can play an important role in helping a woman cope with the stresses of pregnancy, the pain of labour and postnatal recovery.”
Essential oils contain aromatic compounds distilled from the roots, bark, leaves, seeds, flower or fruit of a plant and these oils are highly concentrated and volatile (meaning they have the capacity to evaporate). Although one of nature’s kindest gifts, they are potent and must be used with caution.
The body is in a sensitive state of balance during pregnancy and you may have reactions to aromatic compounds you have previously tolerated. Therefore, as John Kerr advises in his book, Understanding Aromatherapy, pregnant women should consult a qualified aromatherapist before using essential oils.
In the first trimester (up to 15 weeks), which is a vital time for the developing baby, avoid basil, juniper, marjoram, parsley, peppermint, rose and rosemary oils. Some essential oils are emmenagogues and may cause spotting or miscarriage. Also avoid fennel, jasmine and lemongrass — galactagogues that increase breast milk flow.
The abovementioned is not an exhaustive list of oils to avoid during early pregnancy and you must consult a qualified aromatherapist before using essential oils during any stage of your pregnancy. Also, if you are allergic to nuts, beware of using nut-based carrier oils such as almond or peanut. (A carrier oil is the liquid into which an essential oil may be diluted, commonly for massage purposes.)
Dosage is important and it is recommended you use only one drop of a given essential oil in 100ml of carrier oil during the first three months. During this period, safe oils include geranium, bergamot, neroli, orange, mandarin, tangerine, frankincense and Roman chamomile. Essential oils work well synergistically and up to three can be used in one blend. Other oils may be used in a limited way; for example, a drop of eucalyptus or lemon to treat a cold.
At 15 weeks, increase the strength of the dosage to two drops and introduce lavender. Termed “nature’s own medicine chest”, lavender is used for, among other things, easing aches and pains, treating skin irritations and balancing the emotions.
When choosing oils, you should consider your physical and emotional needs and your personal preferences. As your sense of smell is heightened during pregnancy, you may find some aromas too strong. Your aromatherapist will prepare a personalised blend for you and offer guidance as changes occur throughout your pregnancy.
How to use essential oils
Essential oils may be used in baths and vaporisers and for massage. Some specific treatments will require a steam inhalation, compress or sitz (low water level) bath. Consult your aromatherapist for recommended dosages.
For a steam inhalation, add the essential oil to a bowl of warm-to-hot water. Cover your head with a towel, lean over the bowl and inhale the vapours while keeping your eyes closed.
For a compress, fill a bowl with warm water (or cold if specified) and add the essential oil. Slide a folded cloth into the bowl so that it sinks to the bottom. Bring the cloth up to collect the oils floating on the surface, wring out the excess water and place the cloth over the affected or specified area of the body for a minimum of 15 minutes. Plastic wrap on top will prevent any oils escaping into the atmosphere.
Throughout your pregnancy you can use four or five drops of essential oil dispersed in an emulsifier (30ml of full-cream milk works well) in the bath. Essential oils are absorbed through the skin and via breathing. They enter the brain via the olfactory system and work evocatively on the mind, body and spirit.
Depending on their density and how they are used, essential oils may be dispersed for 20 minutes to two hours. For inhalation at night, a vaporiser (with two drops of essential oil) started an hour before going to bed, then switched off once you’re in bed, causes enough dissipation of the oil in the air. A drop of oil on a tissue placed on your pillow works well, too.
Following are some specific uses for essential oils during pregnancy.
Most nausea-relieving oils are too strong for use during pregnancy, although essential oil of spearmint is safe and may be used as a compress on the upper abdomen if the aroma is tolerated.
According to Nancy Beckham ND, one of the most successful treatments for morning sickness is ginger and this is suggested in the form of tablets — up to a total of four 250g tablets taken three or four times daily. They are better tolerated if taken after food (at least a few plain biscuits).
Severe and prolonged nausea or vomiting requires monitoring and treatment by an experienced health practitioner.
Up one moment, down the next — when you’re pregnant, you can sometimes feel as though you’re on an emotional roller-coaster. For emotional balance use bergamot and frankincense. Bergamot soothes anger and makes you more receptive to joy. Frankincense rejuvenates and inspires the spirit. Gentle, sedative Roman chamomile works wonders to calm anxiety.
From the second trimester, use a blend of petitgrain, orange and neroli (described as “simple happiness”). The euphoric and refreshing nature of grapefruit oil can brighten a low mood in the third trimester.
Note: Following pregnancy, it is recommended you don’t use the same essential oils continuously for weeks at a time, as you may become desensitised to a particular oil. However, this won’t happen during pregnancy, as the doses are low.
Aches and pains, an active mind or an active baby don’t make for a good night’s sleep. What does is a soak in the bath with tangerine, mandarin, lavender, ylang-ylang, orange, neroli or Roman chamomile. Alternatively, vaporise the oils. These essential oils calm and soothe both mother and baby on all levels — physical, mental and emotional.
In the third trimester, as the baby grows and takes up space, your stomach begins to feel squashed up under your breastbone. Treat it gently by eating six small meals a day and avoiding rich or spicy foods.
If you are plagued by heartburn, try weak peppermint tea or gently massage a combination of peppermint and eucalyptus essential oils (in a carrier oil) over the upper abdomen. Alternatively, inhale a drop or two of the oils on a tissue. Warming and comforting, black pepper essential oil also eases heartburn. Use it topically in a massage or compress, or an inhalation.
If tension is a contributor to constipation, a relaxing lavender bath or a lower-back massage with lavender and orange oils would be ideal. Orange, a symbol of fertility, tones the nervous system and quells “butterflies” in the stomach.
To help avoid stretch marks, rub oils into your skin on a daily basis. Starting in the fifth month and continuing after the birth until you return to your pre-pregnancy weight, apply a blend of tangerine, mandarin and neroli oils (in a carrier oil) around your hips and abdomen. Neroli is particularly nourishing for dry skin.
Carrier oils are more than just vehicles for essential oils, as they often have health-giving properties of their own. Always try to use cold-pressed, unrefined, certified organic oils. Wheatgerm, apricot kernel and avocado oils all help to keep the skin supple. Sweet almond (a lovely light oil) and jojoba both penetrate the skin well, with jojoba being particularly rich in vitamin E.
Fluid retention often occurs during late pregnancy. To reduce swelling, exercise to stimulate circulation, rest with your feet elevated and soak your feet in an aromatherapy footbath. Use two drops each of sandalwood and cypress and one drop of geranium. Dampen a small towel in this mix to apply as a compress around your ankles. In hot weather use grapefruit oil in a refreshing cold compress.
For tender, swollen breasts, use a cool compress of lavender and geranium or gently apply orange oil in a base of sweet almond.
As your legs are carrying a heavier load, varicose veins can be a problem. Beneficial oils include lavender, grapefruit, geranium, lemon and cypress. With a rich scent similar to pine needles, cypress is particularly effective for promoting circulation and is also said to be spiritually cleansing. Apply a compress over varicose veins or perform a gentle stroking massage working from the feet up the legs.
Lower back pain
An aromatherapy massage does wonders to ease pain and tension in the lower back. This is performed by straddling a chair (or lying on your side supported by pillows) while your partner, using their whole hand, works in circular motions from the spine outwards. The warm touch and rhythmic motions ease pain and relax both mother and baby. If the baby’s father is doing the massaging, touch is more important than technique.
Aromatherapist Sylvia Jacka suggests “It becomes a spiritual connection between the unborn child, the mother and the father.”
Spike lavender is excellent for back massage. This oil, distilled from the flowering tops of the plant, has a pleasant, dry, woody odour.
In the third trimester, use sandalwood for a sedative night-time massage. Dubbed “the quiet achiever”, sandalwood has a delightful, soft aroma and, as Kerr says, a well-deserved reputation as a “stress buster”.
If there’s no one available to give you a massage, place a compress against your skin with a heat pack on top.
Preparing for birth
At this stage, any treatments or remedies should be in used only consultation with your midwife or obstetrician. From 38 weeks, clary sage and rose may be used as uterine tonics. As with other oils extracted from flower petals, rose enhances femininity and is said to have great empathy with the emotional state.
During the last weeks of pregnancy, a perineal massage will allow the perineum to become more supple and elastic in preparation for birth. To do this, first have a warm bath to soften the tissues and increase circulation. Ensure your bladder is empty. Make up a blend of lavender (two drops) and geranium or chamomile (one drop) or a blend of sandalwood (two drops) and chamomile (one drop) with 50ml of wheat germ or sweet almond oil and 5ml of aloe vera gel.
Get comfortable and supported in front of a mirror and apply the blend to the perineum and posterior vaginal wall. (Give special attention to any scar tissue from previous deliveries.) Insert your two index fingers two inches into the vagina and press down towards the rectum. Massage in a “U” shape. Hold the vaginal stretch open for approximately 30 seconds until you feel a slight burning or tingling, then release.
Note: To ensure you don’t have an allergic reaction to the blend at the time of birth, do a test patch first on the inside of your elbow.
The essential oils you pack for the delivery room depend on your personal choice. However, please remember that your midwife or obstetrician is responsible for your care. As they may have no clinical experience in aromatherapy, you will need to discuss beforehand what you want to use and how you want to use it. There is also the possibility of their sensitivity to some aromas.
One of Jacka’s clients used two blends for massage between contractions: one comprising lavender, rose and clary sage; the other, clary sage, geranium and neroli. The lavender was to balance and calm, soothe aching legs and ease uterine pain; the rose to encourage deep and calm breathing, uplift the emotions and help her feel feminine; the clary sage to relieve tension and tone the uterus; the geranium to relieve stress and nervous tension; and the neroli to control fear and anxiety and calm the breath.
Other oils for labour include petitgrain and ylang-ylang (blended with neroli to calm palpitations); sage to increase blood supply to the uterus; and jasmine to dull uterine pain, strengthen contractions, shorten labour and help expel the placenta. Essential oils for labour can be used at a dosage of five to 10 drops.
Because labour can be unpredictable, all your birthing plans might just go out the window. However, Jacka says her clients have felt their labours were easier and shorter as a result of using essential oils during pregnancy, even if not during labour. “The main thing,” she says, “is to provide love, support and encouragement to the mother.”
After the birth
To soothe perineal soreness, soak in a sitz bath of lavender and cypress. To heal the suture line of a caesarean, apply one drop of lavender neat. Clary sage helps tone the uterus.
Always seek professional help for postnatal depression, however to help defuse the “baby blues”, bathe in jasmine and ylang-ylang. Bergamot, neroli, petitgrain and orange also boost the spirits. To balance your hormones, massage with chamomile, geranium and orange. (Addressing the problem of sleep deprivation will also help if you have postnatal depression.)
To treat breast engorgement, use a cold compress of lavender and geranium and remember to wash off all traces of oils from your nipples before breastfeeding your baby. Sweet almond oil on its own is excellent for sore or cracked nipples.
Fennel, along with geranium and clary sage, is used to increase breast milk supply. Add one drop of each oil to 500ml of warm water and apply as a compress on your breasts. To gain maximum time and benefit, apply the compress as soon as possible after a feed. Again, remember to wash off all traces of oils from your breasts before the next feed. It has been said that essential oils contain a life force that makes them capable of recognising where they are needed in the body. Invite them into your life and you’ll find they can help restore the harmony of your mind, body and spirit during pregnancy and beyond.
Thank you to Nancy Beckham ND for her input and advice.
More uses for essential oils during pregnancy
- Low blood pressure: geranium may help, however the problem may be due to anaemia or dehydration (high blood pressure requires practitioner monitoring and treatment)
- Lower abdomen or groin pain: lavender and sandalwood compress
- Nosebleeds: eucalyptus or tea tree, inhaled
Treat the following in a sitz bath:
- Thrush: tea tree
- Cystitis: lavender and bergamot
- Urinary tract infection: sandalwood
- Haemorrhoids: geranium and cypress
Note: Aromatherapy is usually not the sole therapy, therefore the cause and treatment of infections and other health problems should be investigated with the help of a health practitioner.