Adding aromatherapy to massage can enhance its therapeutic effects, resulting in calm and relaxation, according to the International Federation of Professional Aromatherapists. Few people could benefit from relaxation more than expectant mothers.
Aromatherapy, said Amber Duncan, a certified aromatherapist, aromatherapy instructor and owner of Holistic Health Helper in Kettering, Ohio, may also help reduce some of the pain and discomfort women experience during pregnancy. “Aromatherapy works synergistically with massage,” she said. “It can make your client more comfortable.”
However, the use of essential oils on mothers-to-be comes with some caveats.
Importance of Intake
Just as with any client, it’s critical to do a thorough initial intake before using any essential oils on pregnant clients.
“Not only is this extremely important to identify sensitivity to smells, but also to find out about medications the mother is taking or if she is having issues with her pregnancy,” Duncan said. “While massage might be good for her, aromatherapy might exacerbate [those issues]. If there’s any concern for her or the fetus, you should avoid aromatherapy for safety’s sake.”
It’s also a good idea to let a pregnant client smell an essential oil before use. “Aromatherapy could definitely induce increased nausea if it is a scent she has an aversion to,” Duncan said.
Once the therapist has determined that it is safe to use essential oils, Duncan suggested a diluted formula of 1 percent or less, which equals five or six drops per ounce of carrier oil. “If you have any question about the health of the mother or baby, it would be best to use only a base lotion or carrier oil,” she added.
When it comes to selecting the most appropriate oil for pregnancy massage, lavender is relatively safe, according to Duncan. “It has a subtle scent and is calming. There are not a lot of components to cause harm,” she said. “Also, during the second and third trimester ylang-ylang is safe to use.”
(The National Association for Holistic Aromatherapy’s website lists both of these oils as ones that “appear to be safe” for use during pregnancy.)
Aromatherapy Massage Contraindications
Some essential oils contain high levels of ingredients that could be a threat to pregnancy. For instance, peppermint contains camphor, which may cause issues with implantation, according to Duncan. “Also, star anise and fennel should be avoided as they have a strong estrogen effect and have anti-platelet properties.” The American Academy of Family Physicians’ website also states that pregnant women should avoid peppermint oil, and includes anise and fennel on a list of herbs that can disrupt hormone levels.
Oils in the lemon family—lemongrass, lemon basil, citron and others—have been known to cause birth defects in animal test subjects. Wintergreen, garlic and onion inhibit blood coagulation and so might also affect the fetus, she reported.
The National Association for Holistic Aromatherapy’s website offers a list of essential oils to avoid and those that are safe to use during pregnancy. The International Federation of Professional Aromatherapists also provides guidelines for aromatherapy use with pregnant clients.
Knowledge is Key
The Institute of Somatic Therapy does not advocate for the use of essential oils during pregnancy. According to Judith Koch, director of education, they should be used only if the potential benefits outweigh the potential risks and there are no prenatal complications of any kind; and “muted alternatives, such as hydrosols” should be considered instead.
However, the spokesperson noted that if a therapist chooses to use essential oils during pregnancy massage, she should be certified in prenatal massage and have taken a continuing education course in aromatherapy use during pregnancy. Alternatively, a therapist could take an extensive course to become a certified aromatherapist or consult with one, the spokesperson added.
Studies of Aromatherapy and Pregnancy
Some clinical trials have demonstrated positive results when aromatherapy has been used with pregnant women. A research review conducted in 2004 found that aromatherapy was effective “not only in relieving labor pain, but also in preventing suffering—feeling overwhelmed, helpless, out of control, or in danger.”
A 2012 study showed that the use of aromatherapy in combination with massage during labor reduced the need for pain medication. Further, results of a study in 2013 suggested that the scent of lavender reduced labor pain as well as duration of labor.
Proceed with Caution
Duncan said a clear understanding of essential oil properties and the guidance of a knowledgeable individual is important for the well-being of the pregnant client and her fetus. Additional research in this area will result in safer and more appropriate use of aromatherapy in pregnant women.
As long as you gain sufficient knowledge and exercise caution, adding aromatherapy to massage could accentuate the benefits for your pregnant clients.
About the Author
Phyllis Hanlon has written nonfiction articles and book reviews as well as human-interest stories, profiles and award-winning essays. Her specialty areas include health and medicine, religion, education and business. She regularly delights in the joys of massage. She also wrote “Pain-Relieving Creams Enhance Massage for Athletes” for massagemag.com.