Aromatherapy is the practice of using essential oils to affect the body in some way. During labor and birth essential oils (EO) can be used to relieve pain and anxiety, to augment a slow labor or to slow a fast labor. Following are a few articles that describe aromatherapy as well as some references to books. I recently discovered Iris Oils. Joy Black has created several oil blends for laboring women. The following are links to helpful references and articles.

The following articles explain the benefits of aromatherapy during labor and delivery.



Aromatherapy is "the science of using highly concentrated essential oils or essences distilled from plants in order to utilize their therapeutic properties."[64] For the purposes of this article, we focus on the use of essential oils to reduce anxiety and pain in labor. Aromatherapy for these purposes has not been studied with properly controlled trials. This modality is included here because its use in maternity care is increasing, and experts state that "Essential oils are as potent as pharmacological drugs and are equally open to misuse or abuse, whether intentional or not," and, "... until more clinical research trials have been undertaken it would be prudent for midwives to work cautiously with essential oils, using the lowest possible dose and on the least number of occasions."[64]

Effectiveness of Aromatherapy in Reducing Pain and Suffering During Labor

One large, uncontrolled prospective study[65] reported on the use and effectiveness of aromatherapy in a large referral maternity unit in the United Kingdom over an 8-year period between 1990 and 1998. During this time, 8058 women received aromatherapy during labor under the supervision of midwives trained in aromatherapy. It was used for a variety of purposes: to reduce fear, anxiety, and pain; to reduce nausea or vomiting; to enhance women's sense of well-being; and to improve contractions. Meticulous records were kept regarding the oils used, the mode and timing of administration, and reasons for use. Mothers and midwives reported on the effectiveness of the oils in accomplishing the purpose for which it was given. Sixty-one percent of the women received aromatherapy (lavender, rose, or frankincense) to relieve anxiety and fear. Fifty percent of both mothers and midwives found it helpful, and 13% found it unhelpful. Rose oil was rated helpful by most (71%), followed by lavender (50%). Lavender and frankincense were used for pain by 537 women, of whom 54% found lavender helpful and 64% found frankincense helpful. Essential oils have a range of possible adverse effects on the woman, as well as on others in the room, because they are volatile and produce vapors that are inhaled by everyone in the vicinity. One percent (n = 100) of women in the study[65] reported undesired effects associated with the use of aromatherapy; all were minor (nausea, rash, headache, or rapid labor). It is not clear whether they were caused by essential oils, other factors, or by labor itself. In conclusion, aromatherapy is inexpensive and popular with laboring women and midwives. One large uncontrolled study reported that the majority of users found it helpful in reducing pain and anxiety. On the basis of these findings, and its increasing popularity, this modality merits further scientific study to establish its rightful place in maternity care.

Aromatherapy for labour and birth

Benefits of aromatherapy

The ancient art of aromatherapy - the use of essential oils of plants and herbs - is a safe, non-invasive, natural treatment for both body and mind. Many midwives and other birth professionals are now incorporating aromatherapy into their practice as a gentle and effective way of helping relax the labouring woman, ease pain and calm anxiety - either on its own or alongside conventional methods of pain relief. If you are planning to have a completely natural labour you'll find aromatherapy an invaluable tool for helping to calm your mind, fortify your mood, soothe pain and alleviate discomfort - without any of the potential side-effects of pain relieving drugs. Of course, however much you plan, no one can predict what your labour and birth will be like. However even if you opt to avail yourself of the full panoply of medical aids to labour - or if your labour is not straightforward - aromatherapy can still be helpful used alongside conventional procedures. To get the most out of aromatherapy during labour it helps to familiarize yourself with the oils and their uses during pregnancy. That way you'll know how to use them to best effect during labour. In fact you'll probably find that if you've used oils before certain ones have an instantly calming or uplifting effect. It's a good idea to assemble a kit of aromatherapy preparations ready for labour making sure that each bottle is labelled with your name. Keep them in a cool place that is easy to get at so you can start using them when you feel the first twinges of contractions and/or pop them into your labour bag when you go into hospital. Benefits of aromatherapy during labour include:
  • certain oils help energise and uplift, giving you the confidence to approach labour calmly
  • it can help speed up a labour that is progressing slowly
  • it can help calm and soothe if contractions are coming thick and fast without respite
  • certain oils have a tonic effect on the uterus and can be used to encourage labour to start if you have gone much beyond your expected date of delivery and induction is being considered
  • used in massage or in a soothing bath it can help alleviate the pain of contractions, quell nerves and ease anxiety
  • some oils can be used to help enhance the action of the uterus and make contractions more effective
  • it can be used to lift mood and allay fatigue, especially in the transitional stage of labour, when it's common to feel tired and discouraged
  • certain oils help open the air passages and ease breathing especially if you are hyperventilating during the second stage of labour
  • certain oils have antiseptic properties enabling them to be used to cleanse the air in the delivery room and protect you from germs in hospital baths and showers
  • oils can be used during the third stage of labour to help stimulate the uterus to expel the placenta Using aromatherapy during labour
Essential oils can be used in a variety of different ways during labour. They can be added to aromatic baths to help ease pain and enhance progress. For example during the early phases of labour a relaxing warm bath with a few drops of an essential oil such as lavender added is very comforting and can enable you get some sleep, if you go into labour during the night. When labour becomes established and contractions become stronger a warm bath is a great pain reliever and (taken at the right stage) can help enhance the effectiveness of contractions. Oils can also be added to warm water and used on a flannel or compress and applied to your lower back or abdomen to help alleviate pain or to wipe your face and neck during the tumultuous second stage when your body is working hard to push your baby out into the world to refresh and calm you. They can also be inhaled from a tissue, used in a room spray and/or vapourised ina special vapouriser or burner and used to scent the delivery room. If you're planning to do this check with the midwife if you are having a hospital birth as some labour wards have rules about the use of such devices. But where the oils most come into their own is in a variety of different types of massage. Once your baby is born a compress placed on your abdomen can help your body to expel the placenta. But don't do just one thing use your imagination and mix and match aromatherapy treatments : aromatic baths with compresses, massage, inhalations and changing position. This will help maximise the benefits of aromatherapy for both you and your baby.
"....for the baby, to come into the world into a sweetly scented room which is relaxed, welcoming and happy, must be the perfect way to be born." --Aromatherapy and massage for mother and baby, --Allison England, Vermilion

Massage in labour

It's a natural human instinct to rub away a hurt or pain and this is especially true during labour. An aromatherapy massage given by your partner or a member of your birth team is a wonderful, way to help you relax and soothe the pain of contractions. The oils help reduce friction on the skin at the same time as having therapeutic benefits. Almost any type of massage can be safely used during labour. You may, for instance, just want someone to place a comforting hand on your lower back or sacrum. Alternatively you may prefer a firmer more vigorous touch. Massage can be performed in virtually any position that you adopt during labour. Many women find having the abdomen, thighs or lower back massages is especially helpful. If you are a potential birth companion it's as well to acquaint yourself with a few simple massage techniques and find out how your partner likes to be massaged so that it is second nature by the time she goes into labour. Not all women like to be touched when they are in labour so, when the time comes, play it by ear and respond to your your partner's mood. Massage during labour can be performed in many different ways depending on how you feel at the time. Light, fingertip massage concentrating on your face, upper back and limbs between contractions is enormously soothing and comforting, as you rest and relax and your body prepares itself for the next tremendous wave of energy to surge through your uterus. If you are coping with contractions but feel anxious a foot massage can be extremely soothing. Cold feet are often quite literally a problem during labour because all your energy is concentrated in your uterus. A comforting foot massage will both increase circulation and so help warm your feelt and may also help increase the effectivness of contractions by stimulating acupressure points on the sole and heel allowing chi (the body's vital energy) to flow more freely. During contractions a firmer pressure is often appreciated to counteract the discomfort. Many women especially enjoy having the sacral area of the lower back massaged, especially if they are experiencing a "backache labour" in which contractions are felt mainly in the lower spine, from where the nerves supplying your uterus emerge. You are especially likely to have a backache labour if your baby is lying in a posterior position (with his back to your spine). And because the baby has further to turn this kind of labour often goes on longer. Massage of the sacral area of the lower back between contractions can be particularly soothing and relaxing and may also help make contractions more effective and even encourage the baby's head to turn. A back massage can be performed in almost any position where you are kneeling, leaning forward or standing. Inner thigh massage can also be marvelously soothing, especially if, as often happens towards the end of the first stage of labour, the pain of contractions spreads down to your upper thighs. It can be done with you sitting comfortably upright on a chair, birth ball, the floor or a bed.

Perineal massage

During the last few weeks of pregnancy massage of the perineum, the area of tissue between your vagina and your anus, which stretches during birth to allow your baby to emerge, will increase the elasticity of the skin. In fact, a number of reputable research studies have shown that perineal massage carried out in the last six weeks or so of pregnancy can significantly reduce the risk of needing an episiotomy ( a cut made in the perineum to help enlarge the vaginal opening as the baby is born). (1)You can either do this yourself using a mirror to view the perineum or if you like it is a wonderful way for your partner to help you prepare for birth. A few drops of non-scented oil are used to massage the vagina and the perineum gently stretching it, and paying particular attention to any previous scars from an episiotomy or tear.

Healing the perineum

Despite all the preparation in the world you may not be able to avoid having an episiotomy or a natural tear. And even if you have managed to have a completely natural birth with no intervention your perineum may still feel a little tender and sore. The sooner the perineum heals the sooner you will be able to move and sit comfortably and start enjoying motherhood to the full. You can encourage perineal healing - whether you have had an episiotomy, sustained a tear or simply feel a bit bruised - by doing your pelvic floor exercises to help increase healing blood to the area and by taking regular healing herbal baths to enhance the natural healing proecess. We've combined three of the world's most healing herbs to create a healing herbal bath that will help prevent infection, heal the skin and encourage new skin cells to grow: St John's Wort (hypericum), which is soothing, antiseptic and analgesic, marigold (calendula officianalis) widely recognized for its soothing healing properties for skin problems and inflammation and comfrey (symphytum officinale) the healing herb par excellence for easing the pain and swelling of bruises and helping to heal cuts, grazes and wounds of all kinds. The herbal bath can be added either to a conventional bath or bidet, Sitz bath (when the lower half of your body is immersed only) or simply to flush over the perineum if you are confined to bed. If you've had a Caesarean a soothing herbal bath can also help relax you and encourage the incision wound to heal more rapidly. And the oils can also be used to help your baby's umbilicus to avoid becoming infected and heal quickly. Lavender oil is another great aid to perineal healing. Research carried out at Huntingdon's Hinchinbrooke Hospital has found that the use of lavender oil in the bath led to greater comfort of the perineum between the third and fifth days after delivery.


  1. Labrecque M, Marcoux S, Pinault JJ et al 1994 Prevention of perineal trauma by perineal massage during pregnancy: a pilot study, Birth 21 (1):20-25
  2. Mynaugh PA 1991. A randomized study of two methods of teaching perineal massage: effects on practice rates, episiotomy rates and perineal lacerations. Birth 18 (3): 153-9
  3. Avery MD and Van Arsdale I, 1987 Perineal massage: effect on the incidence of episiotomy and laceration in a nulliparous population. J of Nurse-Midwifery 32(3): 181-184
  4. Dale and Cornwell all cited in Complementary therapies for pregnancy and childbirth, Denise Tiran and Sue Mack, Bailliere Tindal