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The Best Essential Oils for Labor

From easing nausea to promoting contractions and calming your nerves, essential oils can help labor in a bunch of ways. Here’s what to know about using them during birth.
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Updated August 29, 2014
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Essential oils are all the rage these days. Anyone who’s in a “mom group” on Facebook has surely encountered recommendations for oils to address every possible ailment, from first trimester nausea to poor baby sleep. But what about essential oils for labor? Increasingly, moms-to-be, doulas, herbalists, midwives and holistic ob-gyns are incorporating essential oils into birth plans and hospital “go bags.” But not all oils are created equal, nor do they all help alleviate labor pains. Here’s what you need to know about using essential oils for labor.

The Benefits of Essential Oils for Labor

Essential oils are compounds that have been extracted from single origin plants using either steam distillation or, less commonly, cold pressing. “They capture the essence of the plant and are quite potent,” explains Kate Reil, DACM, Lac, an acupuncturist and herbalist at The Yinova Institute. Different oils have different purported effects, including easing pain, anxiety and nausea. Studies have shown that certain essential oils can alleviate pain and anxiety in various situations.

Jessie Hawkins, PhD, director of the Franklin School of Integrative Health Sciences, is a clinical researcher and aromatherapy educator and the lead researcher on a clinical trial for essential oils during pregnancy. She’s seen the positive impact of essential oils for labor, but still urges caution when utilizing them in this setting. For those considering using essential oils during labor, she recommends testing them out beforehand to make sure there are no negative physical or even emotional reactions.

“Pregnant women should keep in mind that scent is powerful and is connected to deep memories we may not even consciously recall,” Hawkins says. “So an aroma can bring back deeply held feelings—both positive and negative.” That’s why she recommends testing essential oils for any “scent memories” before the intensity of childbirth.

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To reap the benefits of essential oils for labor, the oils can be breathed in or applied topically onto your skin. A diffuser is a popular option as it’s a low maintenance way to disperse the scent—just be careful not to go overboard. If there’s too much oil dissolved in the air, Hawkins cautions, the mom in labor (as well as healthcare providers) can experience headaches or other unpleasant symptoms, since women in labor often experience hypersensitivity to smells.

“Another thing to keep in mind is that any aromatherapy used near the pushing stage will likely linger in the room after birth,” Hawkins adds. “If baby needs a little extra help breathing, a room filled with essential oils isn’t a great idea.”

Instead of using a diffuser, Hawkins recommends putting a drop of essential oil on a cotton ball or cotton pad that can be inhaled as needed and then easily disposed of.

Applying oils topically is another option, but Reil suggests diluting them first with a carrier oil (like olive oil) and spot checking first to make sure you don’t have a negative reaction, since essential oils can be quite potent and lead to irritation. She says a few drops on a cool washcloth placed on the back of the neck or forehead during labor can be refreshing.

When shopping for essential oils for labor, pay close attention to what you’re actually buying. “Make sure you’re using pure oils that haven’t been adulterated or processed with any synthetic additives,” Reil says. “The FDA doesn’t regulate essential oils, so it’s important to make sure you’re using a safe product.”

Best Essential Oils for Labor

There are so many essential oils on the market today, it can be overwhelming to choose which ones might enhance the childbirth experience. Here are the best essential oils for labor, according to the experts:

Peppermint

Peppermint can give moms in labor a much needed boost of energy, says Nikiya Ellis, owner of The Diverse Doula. It can also help ease the nausea during the transition phase of labor, when your cervix becomes fully dilated.

Image: Courtesy Healing Solutions

Buy it: Healing Solutions Peppermint 100% Therapeutic-Grade Essential Oil, $8, Amazon.com

Red mandarin oil

Red mandarin oil (aka citrus reticulate) is great for reducing labor-related stress and anxiety. “It contains many of the chemicals found in the scientific literature to reduce overall stress, yet it’s safe enough to be in the air after baby is born,” Ellis says.

Image: Courtesy Plant Therapy

Buy it: Plant Therapy Mandarin Essential Oil, $8, Amazon.com

Bergamot

Bergamot (aka citris bergamia) is another scent that can help ease the anxiety of labor. “Our research team has conducted a meta-analysis on bergamot and found it significantly reduces anxiety,” Hawkins says. It’s also safe for both mom and baby.

Image: Courtesy Healing Solutions

Buy it: Healing Solutions Bergamot 100% Therapeutic-Grade Essential Oil, $9, Amazon.com

Clary Sage

Clary sage (which, FYI, is a specific variety of sage) “is a very calming and grounding oil,” according to Bethany Dykman, founder of StrengthLoveBirth, who has been using essential oils for labor for eight of the 14 years that she’s been a doula. “Clary sage is my very favorite oil for promoting strong, regular contractions when a labor is a little spotty and maybe taking a while to establish, while at the same time helping to ease the pain,” she says.

Image: Courtesy Plant Therapy

Buy it: Plant Therapy Clary Sage Essential Oil, $11, Amazon.com

Lavender

Lavender is well regarded for its calming properties, so it’s no wonder it’s a popular essential oil for labor. “I find it’s best during a hard labor when the mother is having a difficult time resting in between strong contractions,” says Dykman.

Image: Courtesy Artizen

Buy it: Artizen Lavender 100% Therapeutic-Grade Essential Oil, $9, Amazon.com

About the experts:

Kate Reil, DACM, LAc, is a licensed and board-certified acupuncturist and herbalist at The Yinova Institute. She received her Master’s in traditional chinese medicine from Pacific College of Oriental Medicine and completed her Doctorate at the American College of Traditional Chinese Medicine. Reil was also an Acupuncture Fellow at NYU Langone Hospital focusing in neurological rehabilitation and labor & delivery.

Jessie Hawkins, PhD, is the director of the Franklin School of Integrative Health Sciences, an aromatherapy educator and the lead researcher on a clinical trial for essential oils during pregnancy. She holds a PhD in health research from Middle Tennessee State University and numerous certifications in a range of natural health fields, including aromatherapy, aromatic medicine, herbalism, childbirth education and labor support.

Bethany Dykman is the founder of StrengthLoveBirth and has been using essential oils for labor for eight of the 14 years that she’s been a doula.

Please note: The Bump and the materials and information it contains are not intended to, and do not constitute, medical or other health advice or diagnosis and should not be used as such. You should always consult with a qualified physician or health professional about your specific circumstances.

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