Using Aromatherapy in Labour

We all have a smell or scent that can conjure up a smile or make you feel happy whenever or wherever you notice it.  It maybe a perfume that reminds you of a happy time, or the smell of freshly cut grass that reminds you of a summer or even the smell of baking bread!  Smell is incredibly evocative and can be used during labour to help you feel calm and manage the power of contractions.

Aromatherapy is a complementary therapy which uses highly concentrated essential oils that have been extracted from various parts of different plants. Essential oils are used for their therapeutic properties. Aromatherapy can be used in massage, in the bath (but not a birthing pool), with the application of hot or cold compresses, on a tissue or taper, by inhalation or vaporiser/diffuser.

Scientists don’t know for sure how aromatherapy works. Essential oils may send chemical messages to the part of your brain that affects your mood and how you’re feeling. This happens either when you breathe in the scent of the oil or when your skin absorbs the oil during a massage or bath.

So how can aromatherapy and the use of essential oils help during labour and birth?

The research about using aromatherapy when you’re in labour is a bit mixed. Although many women use aromatherapy when they’re in labour, more research is needed to see how well it works to reduce pain.

It is therefore important that you always discuss your plan to use any complementary therapy with your midwife and that you have sought expert advice on which oils to use. In many midwifery-led, low-risk NHS birth centres, midwives have been trained to use aromatherapy for labour. If you’re interested in trying aromatherapy during labour, ask your midwife whether your birth unit can provide it. If it can’t, you may be able to use a vaporiser, or add a few drops of oil to a tissue or to a hot or cold compress (a damp flannel). Your partner or your midwife may be able to give you a hand, foot or back massage too.

Our NowBaby Midwife Marley Hall advises ‘Explore what’s available to you in your maternity unit.  Discuss with your midwife that you’d like to use aromatherapy in labour – find out if there are midwives trained in aromatherapy for childbirth in your hospital who can support and advise you.’

How can aromatherapy and massage help during labour and birth?

  • By reducing stress/ anxiety and aiding relaxation
  • By helping to alleviate discomfort and pain
  • Reduce the need for further pain management
  • Can help to enhance contractions

Who can use aromatherapy during labour and birth?

Women and birthing people who have had a normal pregnancy, are in labour and are between 37- 42 weeks gestation can usually use essential oils; however, some essential oils are not suitable for everyone. The midwife caring for you will be able to advise which oils and methods of use are suitable for you. There are some medical and pregnancy conditions or labour complications where you will be advised that essential oils are not used.

What if I’m having a caesarean – can I still use aromatherapy?

Yes. Essential Oils can be very calming if used before a caesarean section. Your midwife will be able to advise you.

How are essential oils used?

  • There are various ways that the essential oils can be administered:
  • In the bath/footbath.
  • Via massage – your midwife will be able to show your birthing partner useful massage techniques.
  • Via a droplet on the palm of the hand or forehead.
  • Via a hot or cold compress using a flannel.
  • Via a droplet on a taper or pillow

What oils are commonly offered?

It is essential that you do not try to self-administer these oils – they should only be administered by someone trained to do so.

  • Bergamot: is an oil with strong antiseptic properties and can help reduce pain in labour and have a calming effect.
  • Clary Sage: this oil has a sweet, nutty smell and can help reduce pain, fear and tension. It may help speed up your labour.
  • Frankincense: an excellent oil for calming nervous tension and hyperventilation. It also helps to balance and calm your emotions.
  • Jasmine: a wonderful oil for reducing anxiety and pain. May also help to speed up your labour.
  • Lavender: a good all round oil that helps calm, relax and reduce pain and headaches. May also help speed up labour.
  • Peppermint: a cooling, refreshing oil, useful for sickness and nausea during labour and can also be used for headaches. Peppermint should not be used in the postnatal period as it can affect breastfeeding.
  • Rose: wonderful in reducing anxiety and enhancing positive feelings.

Essential oils can help to reduce fear and anxiety, ease pain or boost contractions, but should only be used with expert advice from an aromatherapist who has had training to support pregnancy and labour or a midwife with specialist training.

And remember to do your own preparation and research too, having a ‘labour tool kit’ of strategies to manage labour and birth, which we discuss in detail during our antenatal class on Mind and Body preparation. 

To prepare for the arrival of your baby, you may find it helpful to attend antenatal classes. As well as giving you information about what happens during your pregnancy and how to care for your baby, they will also show you what to expect when you go into labour and how your birth partner can support you. You will also learn about methods available to help you cope with, or to relieve, labour pain.