For centuries, essential oils have been used around the world for a variety of reasons.

Often they’re used in alternative medicine as a treatment for everything from skin rashes to cancer. While the healing properties and effectiveness of essential oils are debated, their popularity is undisputed. And today, essential oils – or aromatherapy, more specifically – are increasingly used to help manage pain during labor and childbirth, especially in birth centers that focus on flexible care.

But the question many expectant moms have on their minds is: Does aromatherapy really help control the pain?

Let’s talk about it.

First, what is aromatherapy exactly?

Aromatherapy is the use of powerful scents, usually those of essential oils, to promote health and well-being. It’s believed that certain smells may cause hormone and enzyme responses in the body, and lead to a variety of beneficial effects.

The basic idea of aromatherapy is a reasonable one: smelling something pleasant can make us feel good. From putting on a spritz of perfume before going out, to drinking a mug of herbal tea before bed, your daily routine probably has many examples of this theory in action.

So, can aromatherapy with essential oils help with labor and delivery pain?

The short answer is: It might. Though limited, the results of several studies from the National Institutes of Health and others suggest that essential oils can positively impact birth experience in a variety of ways. Some examples include:

  • Peppermint may be able to help reduce nausea and vomiting.
  • Lavender is widely used for its relaxing properties, either on its own or as an ingredient. It’s also used as a sleep aid. This may extend to its use during childbirth as well.
  • Variants of rose and bitter orange have also been associated with reduced anxiety during labor in some cases.

When it comes to reducing labor pains, several of the same scents that help promote relaxation or reduce anxiety may be able to help. This may be because anxiety and pain are often related.

Pain and anxiety can constrict your muscles and nerves, causing tension or even more physical pain. This is why your nurse tells you to relax when you’re getting a flu shot. Or why deep, mindful breathing is so key to minimizing strain and keeping you centered during a good yoga session.

So, when it comes to helping manage pain during a beautiful, yet stressful event like childbirth, it makes sense that being relaxed can be a real help. This is also part of the logic behind other natural pain management methods used during labor, such as breathing techniques, and hydrotherapy or water birth.

What should you consider before choosing to use aromatherapy for labor and delivery?

Because research isn’t conclusive, talk to the doctor or midwife you’re seeing for prenatal care. They can help you decide which pain management options during labor and delivery may be right for you. Some other things to keep in mind include:

Essential oils can cause irritation

Although essential oils are generally considered safe, there’s still a chance that you could be allergic to one. And because they’re so concentrated, you could experience irritation if they’re used incorrectly.

If you’re using your own essential oils and want to apply them to your skin, make sure you follow any provided instructions. For example, you’ll need to properly dilute essential oils with a carrier oil (like fractionated coconut oil) before application.

If the care team at the hospital is providing the aromatherapy during labor, they’ll handle all the work. But make sure to discuss the scents you prefer and let them know if you have any known allergies.

Certain scents can bring back memories

Since smell is closely tied to memory, you may want to check certain oils to make sure you don’t have any bad associations with them. For example, you may not want to be reminded of a funky car air freshener at the start of labor. Similarly, if you already have good associations with the smells of certain essential oils, those may be scents to consider using.

Aromatherapy provides different pain relief than medications

It’s very unlikely that aromatherapy alone will magically whisk all the pain away during labor and delivery. But because it can easily be combined with other techniques and tools, it may be a welcome addition to your pain management plan, and might provide that last bit of relaxation you need to get the birth experience you want. Your care team will be able to help suggest how you can incorporate aromatherapy into your birth experience if you are unsure.

Your birth, your way

While there’s more research to be done on the benefits of aromatherapy during labor and delivery, many individuals report that it has helped them relax and manage their pain during childbirth.

If you’re interested in using essential oils as a source of natural pain relief during your labor and delivery, you can discuss it with your care team as you work towards finalizing your birth plan. And if you already have favorites at home, talk to the hospital you plan to deliver at about bringing them with you.

As long as you feel confident and safe, there’s no right or wrong way to manage pain during childbirth. Just make sure to choose a hospital that can provide the pain management options you’re planning for and the flexibility you may need.

Aromatherapy is just one of several pain management options HealthPartners and Park Nicollet offer. Our goal is to make every step of the process as pleasant and relaxing as it can possibly be.

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