Aromatherapy is the use of highly concentrated plant oils, usually administered in massage or in the bath. Aromatherapy and massage can be extremely relaxing and may ease symptoms in pregnancy such as backache, constipation, headache, anxiety and stress.
However, all aromatherapy essential oils contain chemicals which give them their specific therapeutic properties (e.g. relaxing, uplifting or stimulating) and once absorbed into the body they work in exactly the same way as drugs – so do not assume that they are all safe in pregnancy and labor. Many oils should not be used at all in pregnancy as the molecules cross the placenta to the baby. As a general rule, avoid using any oils in the first three months, unless you have been advised by an expert, as it is not known exactly how the oils can affect you or your baby.
If you have any medical or pregnancy-related problems, do not use aromatherapy until you have checked with your midwife or doctor that it is safe to do so. After the birth, it is unwise to use essential oils at all on your baby until he is at least three months old as they may irritate the skin or, more importantly, interfere with the continuing development of his immune system.
The oils considered the safest in pregnancy are the citrus oils, which are uplifting and refreshing (for example, orange, grapefruit, lime, bergamot and neroli/orange blossom), as well as ylang ylang, which is a very relaxing oil that can lower blood pressure, and frankincense, an extremely calming and balancing oil. Most other oils should be used with care – even lavender needs to be used cautiously as there are various types, each containing different chemicals, some of which are safe and others may not be.
Do not be tempted to buy essential oils from local markets or high street shops that do not specialize in good quality health products. The oils should be pure, although it is not necessary to buy organic oils unless you particularly want to. When you buy them, they should not be ready-blended with other oils including base/carrier oils such as grapeseed or sweet almond -always buy this separately. The range of oils should be of varying prices – beware any high street shop in which all the oils are more or less the same price.
Some oils are very expensive because of the specialist methods needed to extract the oils from the plants – rose, neroli and jasmine are the most expensive, but frankincense, ylang ylang and sandalwood are also quite costly. Concentrated essential oils should always be in small dark glass bottles as they deteriorate in the presence of oxygen, light and other chemicals such as plastic. Most have a ‘sell by’ date, although this is not always on the bottle, but generally, citrus oils last only six months and should be kept in the refrigerator, whilst most others will last up to two years. Do not store your essential oils in the same place as your homeopathic remedies, which can be inactivated by strong smelling substances.
Always blend your essential oils in a carrier oil, even if you are putting them in the bath, to avoid them coming into contact with the skin neat. Grapeseed is probably the best carrier, but peach kernel, sweet almond (unless you are allergic to almonds), safflower oil and several others can also be used. Do not use baby oil, which is usually a mineral oil and will not absorb into the skin. For massage you can use a maximum of two drops to each 5 ml (teaspoon) of carrier oil – so if you want to use several essential oils together you will need to use more carrier oil. Try not to use more than three essential oils in one blend. In the bath you can add five to six drops to a teaspoon of carrier (or full cream milk if you prefer) and drop this into the bath whilst the hot water is running.
Remember that, irrespective of the way in which you administer the oils, you will be inhaling the vapours as well and the chemicals from the inhaled vapours pass to your lungs and then via your bloodstream to the rest of your body. If you like to use a vaporizer or steam dispenser at home, do not leave it on for more than 10-15 minutes in each hour – and never leave it on all night in a bedroom.