Aromatherapy in the Maternal Space

Aromatherapy is rapidly growing in popularity in our society today; as more people practice this therapy (especially correctly) the greater the awareness is growing around the profound benefits of it. In case you’re unsure on what aromatherapy is; it is an integrative, therapy that uses botanical extracts and essences in the form of massage, inhalation or topical application to promote health and wellness of the body, mind and emotions; this is caused by a direct chemical effect on the body’s physiological processes and systems.

Aromatherapy can help to support many different aspects of a person’s life, but I personally love witnessing its benefits within the maternal space. The beauty of this therapy is this: although it can be incredibly effective, it can also be equally beneficial. With the guidance and advice of a qualified Aromatherapist, you can use aromatherapy throughout your entire maternal journey: to support and assist in areas such as infertility; conception; miscarriage; pregnancy; labour and birth; postnatal maternal support; and even lactation and newborn support.

Infertility

This area of a woman’s maternal journey can be very challenging; physically, mentally, hormonally and emotionally. Although many women come to find an excitement and hope through this time, quite often, this journey can be rather invasive regarding some of the treatments and it can often create a sense of pain, heartache and even feelings of loneliness and helplessness. While there are essential oils that can support the changing hormonal cycles from infertility drugs, there are also other oils that can help to provide more emotional care and comfort through this journey by soothing the nervous system and restoring balance to the body.

Oils such as cypress, coriander, Roman chamomile, clary sage, fennel, geranium, lavender, lemon balm, rose, thyme and ylang ylang (depending on their dosage, mode of administration, and the type of fertility treatment) can help ease the physiological symptoms of infertility treatments while bringing a sense of comfort and optimism through the emotional and psychological discomforts of the process too.

Conception

The process of trying to conceive is an area of a woman’s maternal journey that can be quite bittersweet. While there is the excitement and optimistic hope of falling pregnant, there are some conception journeys that extend beyond months which can cause discouragement, heartache, and even fear. The importance of aromatherapy support through this time is focused mostly on hormonal, emotional and sexual support.

Through consistent “trying”, many couples may begin to feel like their sexual relationship is losing its passion and may even feel like sex is becoming a chore – and in some cases – a disappointing chore; this can make conception exceedingly more difficult: physically, psychologically and emotionally. The use of aphrodisiac, stimulant and comfort oils can be extremely beneficial in helping to keep the atmosphere of passion and romance alive between the couple, as well as in the bedroom. Since a couple’s sexual relationship is the foundation of conception, it is important to nurture and support this area of a couple’s life through which they may be struggling.

Oils such as frankincense, rose, sandalwood, vanilla, clary sage, geranium, ylang ylang, neroli, lavender, Roman chamomile, jasmine, grapefruit, gardenia, vetiver, violet and mandarin (depending on their dosage, blend and mode of administration) can help to support the woman’s physiological and hormonal reproductive cycle; stimulate each partner’s sexual desire; create a euphoric and relaxed atmosphere for sexual activity; and bring a sense of comfort and healing to the heart when disappointment or discouragement arises.

Miscarriage

This is an area in a woman’s life that can be deeply discouraging and painful to go through, especially when there have been multiple miscarriages in a relationship. The depth of the emotional and psychological struggle is greatly magnified when miscarriage has occurred through infertility or through extended conception journeys. While there are oils that work to support and strengthen the female reproductive system, the main focus of aromatherapy within the field of miscarriage is to soothe and comfort the heart, emotions, and nervous system; and to encourage a sense of comfort and peace through the grief process.

Oils such as Roman chamomile, frankincense, geranium, petitgrain, grapefruit, lavender, neroli, palmarosa, rose, violet, vetiver and rosewood (depending on their dosage, blend, and mode of administration) can help to ground and calm intense emotions; balance the adrenal responses of the body and mind; soothe the heart; and create a sense of security, peace and comfort, to support a couple through their grief and encourage emotional healing in order to proceed with conception again with a gentle and relaxed approach.

In cases where the grief of miscarriage is too difficult that it begins to create emotional distance between the couple and difficulty with resuming physical intimacy in the relationship, then the use of aphrodisiac, stimulating and comfort oils such as frankincense, benzoin, rose, sandalwood, vanilla, clary sage, geranium, rose geranium, ylang ylang, neroli, lavender, patchouli, Roman chamomile, jasmine, vetiver, violet, gardenia and mandarin (depending on their dosage, blend, and mode of administration) can help to promote emotional stability and sexual desire by creating a euphoric, relaxed and safe atmosphere for sexual activity and emotional intimacy to resume.

Pregnancy

Pregnancy can be both an exciting and challenging time in a woman’s life; while there is the gorgeous miracle of a new life forming within and the anticipation of growing a family with lifelong memories, there are often plenty of physical, emotional and mental discomforts that are also involved. Pregnancy has different stages with different discomforts and safety considerations, which is why aromatherapy practice has to be handled with extreme caution during this time.

First Trimester

In early pregnancy, discomforts such as nausea/vomiting, fatigue, cravings and a newly suppressed immune system, can make getting through each day quite difficult or uncomfortable sometimes. While there are some women who experience little to no pregnancy symptoms, there are many who do and it’s all due to a massive change in hormones and physiological bodily functions. Most, if not almost all, essential oils are considered unsafe and are not recommended for use during pregnancy, specifically the first trimester. There are, however, very few oils that are considered to be relatively safe when used under the strict and correct guidance of an Aromatherapist and medical birth professional; oils such as lemon, mandarin, lavender, Roman chamomile, neroli, spearmint and peppermint (in acute doses with the correct mode of administration) can help bring relief to many common, early pregnancy symptoms.

Second Trimester

As the second trimester approaches, a woman may experience a renewed energy and most of the first trimester symptoms normally begin to disappear at around this time. Most women don’t require any form of aromatherapy treatment during this time but there are some women who still experience the discomfort of early pregnancy symptoms; also, each woman comes from a different walk of life and may require additional therapeutic support for emotional, mental or even psychological concerns.

There are also other pregnancy-related concerns during this time that may arise such as blood pressure fluctuations, headaches, colds and flu, insomnia, haemorrhoids and sciatica (to mention a few). When dosed and administered correctly, oils such as benzoin, Roman chamomile, cardamom, petitgrain, eucalyptus, geranium, ginger, grapefruit, lavender, lemon, mandarin, sweet orange, palmarosa, patchouli, pine, rose, rosewood, ylang ylang, neroli, peppermint, spearmint and lime, when dosed and administered correctly, can bring a profound relief to many pregnancy related discomforts during this time.

Third Trimester

While the third trimester can bring general complaints of physical discomfort, it raises more attention towards skincare; as the belly grows more rapidly and hormones do what they do best, the skin can become dry, discoloured and sensitive leading to stretchmarks, redness, itchiness, inflammation and discolouration (also known as melasma or chloasma). Deeply nourishing carrier oils and butters such as sweet almond, wheatgerm, avocado, rosehip, jojoba, cocoa or shea butter are absolute treasures during this time and can be mixed with skin-healing and nourishing essential oils such as neroli, lavender, Roman chamomile, carrot root, calendula, mandarin, palmarosa, rosewood and rose, depending on the specific problem that requires attention.

During the last 6 weeks of pregnancy, as the due date approaches, often feelings of anxiety can kick in or even unsettled emotions such as sadness, fear, insecurity, irritability, frustration and even aggression. Episodes of intense emotional displays are normal around the end stages of pregnancy and require gentle, unbiased support. Oils such as lavender, neroli, mandarin, Roman chamomile, benzoin, petitgrain, geranium, rose geranium and rose can help to bring balance and comfort to unsettled emotions during this time (when dosed, blended and administered correctly).

During the last 2 weeks of pregnancy, a woman can begin toning and preparing her uterus and body for birth with gentle, muscular stretching and regular massages or baths using oils such as clary sage, rose, jasmine, lavender and geranium under the guidance of a qualified Aromatherapist and medical birth professional.

Labour and Birth

This is an area where I have personally come to witness the benefits and beauty of aromatherapy in a gentle and intimate way. Labour comes with many discomforts which are totally normal throughout the process such as: nausea, vomiting, back pain, exhaustion, dizziness, weakness, anxiety, panic, insecurity, fear, intense emotional displays, difficulty breathing, contractions, fatigue, etc. While most of these symptoms are normal they can be equally uncomfortable and this can cause labour to feel longer, more difficult and exhausting; however, a lot of the symptoms can be greatly reduced with practical measures (such as the 12 Rules for Labour) and aromatherapy support. Oils such as clary sage, jasmine and cinnamon leaf (when used and dosed correctly) can help with strengthening contractions and progressing or encouraging a stalled labour. For unsettled emotions or mental states; oils such as lavender, neroli, Roman chamomile and rose (when used and dosed correctly) can be effective for inducing a calm state and atmosphere and slowing down/easing heightened emotional responses. If breathing deeply and correctly is a concern, frankincense is a winner; it’s also useful for calming unsettled emotions or mental states and creating an atmosphere of intimacy/euphoria and security. The use of frankincense during an oxytocin rush (through transitional labour and pushing) can greatly increase the woman’s natural ‘morphine’ like state (caused by a harmonic balance of natural labour hormones) which helps to numb her perception of pain and create a naturally-induced dream-like state to intensify the intimacy of the moment for her to birth her child gently and effectively, according to her individual autonomy.

When general pain (especially lower back pain) is present and is causing great discomfort, oils such as clary sage, lavender and Roman chamomile, if used correctly with effective position changes for comfort, rebozo techniques and even targeted massage, can help to reduce the intensity of a woman’s pain. For other discomforts such as nausea or vomiting, which is a normal symptom of a woman’s body coping through intense sensations and physical/mental stress (most common in transitional labour); oils such as lemon, ginger, spearmint or peppermint (if used and dosed correctly, depending on each woman’s sensitivity to smell during the labour process, specifically during transitional stage) can help to ease this physiological response, and in some cases, even totally eliminate it.

While there are ‘safe’ oils that can be used during labour and birth, the correct mode of administration and dosage is imperative and needs to be handled carefully with close supervision by a professional who is qualified in the field of aromatherapy and birth. Safety considerations apply more during this time as labour is a very delicate, sensitive and unpredictable process that can change at any moment, even due to the smallest disruptions. There is also the consideration of other members who may be present in the birth room, specifically the baby being born, whose physiological and metabolic systems are still immature and therefore may have a contra-indicated reaction to essential oil exposure; modes of administration need to be practiced as non-invasively as possible, to minimise as much exposure to the newborn as possible. The practice of aromatherapy during this stage of a woman’s life must be handled with extreme caution and care by a professional who has a comprehensive knowledge on the physiological effects of the birth process and essential oils.

Postpartum Maternal Support

The greatest struggle in this area is mostly hormonal and emotional, tied in with extreme physical demands such as healing after the birth; breastfeeding; lack of sleep; minimal time for self-care; and in some cases, a fussy baby. Most new mothers struggle during this time, more so during the first 3-4 weeks when newborn demands are the highest, breastfeeding is new and painful, and they are undergoing a new transition into motherhood; this time can feel greatly overwhelming and women need as much support as possible.

When low moods or depressive episodes strike; calming and uplifting oils such as lavender, neroli, mandarin, jasmine, rose, bergamot, petitgrain, frankincense, vetiver,  rose geranium, and geranium can bring comfort, emotional lightness and a sense of gentle optimism while soothing the nerves and encouraging a calmer state to assist with insomnia, anxiety, frustration and sadness.

Afterbirth pains can be quite mild for some women while others may suffer with them; oils such as German chamomile, clary sage, lavender, geranium, frankincense and jasmine can assist with pain relief while helping the uterus contract down to its original size faster.

Some women may also experience tearing or episiotomies during the birth which may require gentle and speedy healing; oils such as lavender, tea tree, calendula, myrrh, geranium, jasmine and German or Roman chamomile can help ease the pain, swelling and inflammation of the injury site, and accelerate the bodies healing processes while keeping the area clean and free from infection. Note though, that douching is not recommended in general, more so during the postnatal period, and essential oils should never be administered internally (this includes the vagina); sitz bathing or gentle rinsing with salt (sodium chloride or magnesium phosphate) is a non-invasive option that is effective enough for healing and cleansing of the intimate, genital area.

Lactation Support

There are so many benefits to breastfeeding for both a mother and her baby relating to the infant microbiome, intimate bonding, nourishment, involution of the uterus, infant immunity, maternal health and the emotional security of the newborn. During the first 3 days after birth, a mother’s breasts will secrete only colostrum; a rich substance that’s loaded with antibodies to protect the infant from potential disease and infection from the outside world. This colostrum is vital to the building and maturing of the infant’s microbiome as it is rich in special HMO’s (human milk oligosaccharides); a special sugar that helps to keep an infant’s blood sugar levels stable and ‘feeds’ the good bacteria within the infant’s gut (thus strengthening the infant’s microbiome). Colostrum is much thicker than breast milk which requires a baby to suck hard at the breast (super beneficial for preventing SIDS) and this can cause the nipples to feel painful and sensitive; applying colostrum to the nipples can help, while others find that pure lanolin helps as well. Another option, in terms of aromatherapy, can be to apply skin-healing oils that are non-toxic, such as calendula or German chamomile, immediately after each feed. While these oils can be quite soothing and are non-toxic, one must always be sure to wipe the nipple area clean, with a damp cloth, before each feed. Although some natural remedies seem to include comfrey in their ingredients, it is important to take note that this oil is toxic when ingested and is therefore not recommended for topical use on the nipples during lactation.

After the first three days, a woman’s prolactin and oxytocin levels begin to surge and her milk will begin to ‘set in’ and ‘let down’ as it rapidly increases in volume with a more watery consistency; this is what we refer to as ‘breast milk’. During this time, a woman may need to feed her baby more regularly and in some cases, the excess milk may need to be expressed to prevent breast engorgement. A woman’s breasts may feel swollen and hard; painful and sensitive when touched; and somewhat ‘lumpy’ in some areas where the milk ducts are clogged or inflamed. While it is important to effectively empty each breast at each feed to prevent engorgement and possible mastitis, pain and inflammation may still be present leading to sensitivity and discomfort. Oils such as frankincense, lavender, grapefruit and German Chamomile (dosed and blended correctly) can be gently massaged into to the breast area to assist with pain, swelling, congestion, inflammation and discomfort, while protecting the skin from potential damage caused from the rapid stretching due to engorgement. These oils should be diluted with carrier oils such as hemp seed, marula, avocado, coconut or apricot kernel which are rich in anti-inflammatory, skin nourishing, and immune boosting properties to help prevent infection and skin damage.

The first 3-4 weeks of breastfeeding can sometimes be emotionally and mentally challenging for multiple reasons including: pain and discomfort, engorgement, frequent feeding, etc. This time can bring a wide range of feelings from discouragement, self-doubt, frustration, anger and even sadness. Aromatherapy during this time can be used for stimulating a sense of optimism and comfort to help a woman journey through this time with less mental and emotional strain. Oils such as lavender, frankincense, jasmine, rose, geranium, vetiver, patchouli, violet, Roman chamomile, bergamot, cypress, mandarin, neroli, grapefruit, petitgrain, sweet orange, marjoram, spearmint, vanilla, and benzoin (when dosed, blended and administered correctly) can be helpful in relieving emotional, mental and even physical strain through this time.

Between 3 and 6 weeks, a mother may notice her supply ‘dropping’ to lower levels than what she had before and while this can be comforting regarding the physical discomfort of engorgement, it can also be quite frightening and concerning for others. This stage of breastfeeding is completely normal and it does not mean that a woman is ‘running out’ of milk; it is simply her natural supply-and-demand system that is in the process of learning balance. It is important to feed frequently during this time, preferably on demand, while the body finds a balance in its milk supply. In rare cases, where low milk supply becomes an issue of no longer being able to properly nourish a baby, it is important to seek the advice and guidance of a lactation specialist and medical professional. Should this be the case, basil, hops, dill, lavender and geranium oil (when dosed correctly) can be used to stimulate the milk producing glands and hormones when massaged into the breasts and used in conjunction with a healthy diet (rich in protein, water, vitamins and minerals, and milk-producing foods); plenty of skin-to-skin; and as much suckling at the breast as possible (even for infant comfort) to stimulate oxytocin and prolactin, thus assisting with milk production and let-down. While fennel oil is another great alternative, one must be careful when using it; only small doses are needed; it should not be used for longer than a week; and it should always be used during lactation under the guidance of a qualified professional.

So often, a woman’s diet can greatly affect the gut of an infant, especially during the first 6 weeks, and a diet that is rich in gas-producing, spicy, lactose, sugar or caffeinated foods/drinks can cause immense discomfort for an infant, which can present in symptoms such as cramps, reflux, excessive gas build-up and flatulence, inflammation of the colon, bright red stools, and even colic (in severe cases). While a healthy and balanced diet (preferably void of the above mentioned foods) is vital when breastfeeding, there are also some essential oils such as dill, fennel, German chamomile and myrrh that a woman can use on herself (when dosed and administered correctly) to bring comfort to the infant for these types of digestive complaints. As these oils absorb into the bloodstream of the nursing mother, a small amount is passed through the breast milk, bringing relief to the baby. When these same oils are diffused correctly (method and dosage) for the baby, these small molecules get inhaled and can bring relief to the infant’s digestive system as well. Other oils such as lavender, frankincense and German/Roman  chamomile can also be diffused or applied with gentle, circular massage to the infant’s abdomen or under the feet (under the strict guidance of a qualified Aromatherapist and medical professional) to help bring further relief.

Lactation is an area that is influenced by a delicate hormonal balance and one must always be careful when using essential oils during this time. Each essential oil has its own recommended dosage, administration and course duration for use, which is why it is important to seek advice from a qualified Aromatherapist first, to equip you with the safe method and dosage for use.

Newborn Support

The newborn stage, specifically the first 4 weeks, is an incredible and exciting time full of bonding, discovery and falling in love, but it can also be a very challenging time for some mothers and even some newborns. While this time can feel rather easy for some women, it may not be the case for others: Sleepless nights; abrupt bodily changes; intense hormonal fluctuations and sharing her body around-the-clock, on demand, with a little human she’s still getting to know, can often feel incredibly overwhelming. Some women may not feel that motherhood comes instinctively or naturally and some may even experience constant anxiety and fear over the safety, health and general state of their newborn baby. Some women may struggle to bond with their baby and some can even feel like a failure as a mother when they have a newborn that cries a lot or when they feel lost in their abilities and emotions towards themselves, their babies, and even their spouses. All of these factors can lead to a low self-esteem; insecurity; poor habits; neglect in self-care and basic hygiene; anxiety; unstable moods; depression; anger and frustration; uncontrollable emotional outbursts/displays; and even a sense of hopelessness.

It is important for a new mother to get as much bed rest as possible (even if she is not sleeping); hydration; balanced nutrition; and physical and emotional support. Aromatherapy for a new mother during this stage is focused mostly on emotional care and promoting physical and mental relaxation. Oils such as frankincense, lavender, rose, Roman chamomile, jasmine, clary sage, benzoin, mandarin, geranium, gardenia, rose geranium, neroli, palmarosa, sweet orange, grapefruit, petitgrain, bergamot, vetiver, violet  and cypress (when dosed, blended and administered correctly, under the appropriate circumstances) can help to calm the nervous system; balance unstable emotions and fluctuating hormones; promote physical rest and relaxation; stimulate a sense of security and gentle optimism; encourage deeper sleep cycles; and calm troubled or anxious thoughts.

Some newborns can adjust to the outside world with greater ease than others and those that do not, may cry excessively; show signs of restlessness, frustration and discomfort; struggle with feeding and sleeping; may be unresponsive to affection; and express signs of anxiety, insecurity and stress. This can cause many negative physiological, psychological and neurological effects on a baby if left unchecked. While aromatherapy can be quite helpful, it is extremely important to note that a newborn baby’s physiological and metabolic systems are still immature and incredibly sensitive; they are unable to properly metabolize the chemical molecules of essential oils and this can lead to toxicity, organ damage (even failure), and severe adverse reactions such as seizures, convulsions, fluctuating blood pressure, difficulty breathing, inflammation or burning of the internal mucous membranes, etc.; therefore, a newborn needs to be introduced to essential oils as gently, slowly and non-invasively as possible. Any baby under the age of 8-12 weeks should preferably not be exposed to essential oils at all, but in extreme cases, when a newborn may benefit from aromatherapy, only lavender, dill and German/Roman chamomile may be used in extremely low doses and under the appropriate circumstances; these oils should preferably not be applied topically and should always be used under the guidance of a qualified Aromatherapist and medical professional.

As a baby passes the age of 8-12 weeks old, additional oils and topical administration can slowly be introduced into their routine. The Bryan Lütge Naturals Baby Bath Drops and Massage Oil are great options when introducing a baby to the world of aromatherapy, especially for the introduction of topical application, in a gentle and non-invasive way.

Safety Considerations within Aromatherapy

Now that you have run through how aromatherapy can benefit the maternal journey, it is also incredibly important to note that this therapy can be intensely effective and can cause profound physiological, hormonal, psychological and emotional responses from the body due to the individual chemical composition of the oils and how these chemicals affect each individual. Therefore, it is imperative that you practice responsible use of essential oils during the maternal period, preferably with the advice and guidance of a qualified Aromatherapist who specializes in maternal care; even more so if:

  • Your pregnancy is classed as high risk
  • You’ve had fertility or hormone treatments
  • You’re attempting a vaginal birth for the first time after a cesarean
  • You’re on any medication or herbal supplements
  • You have any serious medical, neurological, hormonal or psychological conditions
  • You’re attempting a home birth
  • You’ve never used essential oils before

The practice of aromatherapy is a complimentary/supportive/integrative therapy that works alongside standard, allopathic healthcare – it does not replace it – it is important to be sure to practice open communication with all your care providers regarding which therapies/treatments you are currently undergoing, to ensure that all treatments, when combined, serve your maternal journey in a safe, effective and balanced way.

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