While the experience of childbirth is unique for each woman, pain is nearly universal experience among women in childbirth. As a subjective outcome, pain is a condition that is ideal for aromatherapy.
Inhalation aromatherapy is particularly effective for subjective outcomes, such as pain, anxiety, and fatigue (1). Multiple studies have demonstrated the effects of essential oils for pain from both medical procedures and from injuries (2,3).
Labor pain is a unique pain that differs from the sharp, acute pain experienced with an injury. While aromatherapy is an ideal choice for using essential oils during labor, researchers needed to verify that aromatherapy was beneficial for this specific type of pain.
There are several scientific studies on essential oils during labor (4,5). One of the most recent was published in 2016 (6). In this study, researchers conducted a clinical trial evaluating essential oils for labor in an Iranian hospital.
A total of 119 women completed this study. The average age of these women was 19 years old. One group of women experienced essential oils during labor. The other group experienced a water-based placebo.
Women in the aromatherapy group were given lavender oil, diluted to 1%, in their palms. They were instructed to rub their hands together and inhale the aroma for 3 minutes.
This was done three times during active labor. The first was at 5-6cm dilation. Dose two was at 7-8 cm, and dose three at 9-10cm. Researchers measured the pain levels of the women treated with essential oils during labor, as well as the total duration of labor.
In this study, essential oils helped to reduce the pain experienced by women in labor, as compared to the placebo group. However, the essential oils did not shorten the total duration of labor between the two groups.
Essential oils make a great tool for labor and delivery. Certain oils may even be able to help a slow labor become more established (7). Oils from floral plants and citrus peels have been shown to reduce overall pain levels.
In the study outlined above, the average reduction in pain was 2 points on a Visual Analogue Scale (VAS). This is a scale from 1-10 that measures the total experience of pain. Women who were dilated 9-10cm enjoyed a reduction from an average of 9 on the scale to an average of 7. This does not mean that they were pain-free. However, they did have significant benefits from using essential oils in labor.
The science of essential oils for labor is plentiful. Multiple high quality studies indicate that aromatherapy is beneficial for laboring women. Essential oils are also easily combined with other pain-relieving methods for a comprehensive approach to labor pain.
If you are pregnant and preparing for labor, essential oils may be a beneficial tool to have in your birth kit. Our research team recommends Lavendula angustifolia and a citrus oil such as mandarin (Citrus reticulata). Both of these oils are safe to inhale during birth. If the aroma lingers in the air after birth, both oils are also safe for baby.
If you are a doula, midwife, or L&D nurse, essential oils such as lavender and mandarin are great tools for a labor support kit. It is necessary to first test any oils used during childbirth for negative scent memories. Because pain relief is a subjective experience, previous unhappy experiences with any fragrance used during birth may cause the oil to actually worsen pain levels and reduce pain tolerance.
Responses to sensory experiences during childbirth can vary quickly and dramatically. Therefore, we do not recommend using essential oils in diffusers or sprays during childbirth. A drop or two of the oil on a cotton ball or aromastick are ideal. Should the scent become bothersome, the device can be sealed in a plastic bag for disposal. This allows the scent to immediately leave the room.