As an OKC Doula and midwifery assistant, I use essential oils for labor because they can be powerful tools. There is evidence from several different studies that suggest that aromatherapy can help in relieving anxiety and pain during labor for laboring parents. If you are interested in reading these studies, I have listed several resources below for you.
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Aromatherapy is the use of therapeutic grade essential oils extracted from aromatic herbs, flowers, and trees. There is a good chance you have a friend or family member who diffuses oils or wears them! They have gained massive popularity over the last several years yet odiferous plants, flowers, and roots in oils have been used by humans for several millennia.
The first records of essential oils come from ancient India, Persia, and Egypt. The countries of Greece and Rome did extensive trading with Asian countries for odoriferous oils and ointments. During this time period, flowers, roots, and leaves were placed in fatty oils to create the oils, resins, & ointments.
The distillation of essential oils was developed in the golden age of the Arab culture. The Arabs were the first to distill ethyl alcohol from fermented sugar, thus providing a new solvent for the extraction of essential oils in place of the fatty oils that had probably been used for several millennia. We can thank the Arab Golden Age for the modern essential oils we use today!
There are many researchers all around the world who have been studying the effects of essential oils on the human body as well as essential oils for labor. From reducing the stress hormone Cortisol, increasing the hormone Oxytocin, and providing relaxation and muscle tension release, essential oils have numerous benefits! For instance, anxiety stimulates the sympathetic nervous system and releases stress related hormones such as noradrenaline, cortisol and adrenaline, which increases how people feel the severity of labor pain as well as the duration of labor (Lowe).
By using essential oils for labor we can find a way to provide a maximum pain relief feeling and calmness, with the minimum complications, birth workers such as myself can potentially make a large positive impact on a families labor and birth journey.
As a birth doula one of my favorite essential oils for labor is Clary Sage. I have utilized the Clary sage essential oil along with acupressure to encourage labor during client inductions or if labor ‘stalls’. Clary Sage essential oil contains sclareol which has an estrogen-like effect because sclareol has a structure similar to estrogen [Tisserand].
Since the hormone estrogen encourages the release of oxytocin, the sclareol in clary sage can also encourage a larger release in oxytocin. Commonly, inductions use a synthetic form of oxytocin in attempt to start labor, called Pitocin. Using Clary Sage oil is a more ‘natural’ way to encourage labor but it can also be used in combination with typical hospital induction methods.
Studies also show that inhaling clary sage reduces cortisol levels (Tadokoro) Cortisol is your body’s primary stress hormone. is made in the adrenal glands. This hormone becomes elevated when we experience heightened anxiety or stress but is lowered when we’re in a relaxed state. You can imagine how important it is to not have stress hormones flooding your body when working to bring your baby into the world.
There is evidence to suggest that when someone has an increase in cortisol, their birth can become stalled. This is because as animals, we need to be able to access our fight or flight response in case we were birthing and a predator or some other danger occurred.
As a birth doula, preventing my doula families from entering the fear-pain cycle and experiencing increase in cortisol is a high priority. I utilize essential oils for labor like Clary Sage in order to do this.
Peppermint oil is extracted from the stem, leaves, and flowers of the peppermint plant. So far in my journey as a birth doula, peppermint is one of my most commonly used essential oils for birth. During labor and birth, there are huge changes in hormone levels which can leave people feeling pretty nauseous. Peppermint can help alleviate this feeling of nausea. I have also used a single drop of peppermint essential oil along with eucalyptus for my clients during foot massages during long inductions. Induction of birth can cause swelling, massage with eucalyptus and a small amount of peppermint have helped my clients in labor and their first few days postpartum.
That being said, “Peppermint oil has been used to trigger menstruation and should be avoided during pregnancy. Peppermint oil should not be used internally or on or near the face in infants and young children because of its potential to cause bronchospasm, tongue spasms, and, possibly, respiratory arrest (Kliger)”. There are several commonly used essential oils that should NOT be used around children. Eucalyptus and Peppermint are among them.
You should also avoid the mint family while breastfeeding because it can potentially cause a decrease in breastmilk supply. I have talked to several parents who had no idea about mints interaction with breastfeeding and noticing a supply drop after a holiday season full of candy canes.
Eucalyptus is on of my top favorite smells personally! I love getting to use it at births if my clients consent to using it of course! Studies show that Eucalyptus oil has analgesic effects and is an anti-inflammatory (Silvia). Analgesic’s are agents that reduce the sensation of pain. This can be pretty handy for labor as you can imagine!
Previously, I have used Eucalyptus essential oils for labor for massage and to create calming baths for clients. Just a drop or two in a warm bath can help relax the hard working muscles during labor. This relaxation can reduce levels of the stress hormone cortisol and give a little boost of oxytocin. So while a client is relaxing peacefully and managing their labor in the warm waters of a bathtub, they can also encourage labor’s progression. As a note, I have not used eucalyptus oil in a bathtub or birth pool if the parents are planning on their baby being born in said tub or pool.
“When you are feeling drained, strung out and depressed, grapefruit provides a new zest for life. With its light, fruity aroma it gives wings to feelings of heaviness, uplifts sagging spirits and radiates optimism.” – Robbie Zeck
Last but not least, we have Grapefruit oil! Grapefruit oil is expressed from the peels of the grapefruit. You have probably smelled the oil of a grapefruit when peeling a fresh grapefruit and are familiar with its bright, citrusy smell. I enjoy using grapefruit essential oils for labor to alleviate nausea and to uplift a doula families spirit.
I really enjoy using grapefruit oil when supporting hospital births as a doula because it can make the smell of the hospital room disappear in away and help create an uplifting birth space. Grapefruit oil does more than just smell good though! Studies show that grapefruit oil is an antidepressant, antiseptic, depurative, disinfectant, diuretic, hepatoprotective, stimulant a powerful antibacterial and anti-fungal. “Grapefruit oil was tested on methicillinresistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) and methicillin-sensitive S. aureus (MSSA) from hospital patients using the disk diffusion method.
Grapefruit oil showed higher effectiveness inhibiting MRSA and MSSA growth than vancomycin, which is the currently used standard antibiotic for treatment. The authors concluded that essential oils such as grapefruit could be beneficial towards treating hospital patients with MRSA and MSSA infections in areas where antibiotics are not readily available(Sharma)”. How incredible is that?!
All of the above listed essential oils for labor have been amazing, powerful tools for me as a birth doula. It has been fascinating getting to watch and learn how midwives utilize essential oils for labor as well through my training as a midwifery assistant.
I did want to make a quick note about how because they can be so powerful, they should be used with caution.
Sometimes when people are looking for ‘natural’ alternatives for health they don’t fully appreciate the power that can be behind the ‘natural’ or ‘holistic’ tool they are using. Just because it is considered natural, does not mean you cannot cause harm and use it inappropriately. For instance, I have talked to several parents who gave their kids melatonin every night for months or years thinking that it would not cause any harm because it is ‘natural’. Yet, extended melatonin use can cause an array of problems.
In this same sense, essential oils can be harmful. If you were to use Eucalyptus oil or peppermint oil around children you could cause respiratory distress. If you used Clary Sage around a pregnant woman, you could cause harmful effects to her pregnancy.
If you are interested in using essential oils for labor, I recommend checking out Lea Jacobson’s website. Her website is a great resource for brand-free essential oil safety. Follow that link to learn to use essential oils safely and effectively no matter which brand you use.
Jones, L., Othman, M., Dowswell, T., Alfirevic, Z., Gates, S., Newburn, M., Jordan, S., Lavender, T., & Neilson, J. P. (2011). Pain management for women in labour: An overview of Systematic Reviews. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews. https://doi.org/10.1002/14651858.cd009234
Lowe, N. K., & Corwin, E. J. (2011). Proposed biological linkages between obesity, stress, and inefficient uterine contractility during labor in humans. Medical Hypotheses, 76(5), 755–760. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.mehy.2011.02.018
Mansour Lamadah, S. (2016). The effect of aromatherapy massage using lavender oil on the level of pain and anxiety during labour among Primigravida women. American Journal of Nursing Science, 5(2), 37. https://doi.org/10.11648/j.ajns.20160502.11
Spielberger, C. D., Gorsuch, R. L., & Lushene, H. E. (1970). Stai manual for the state-trait anxiety inventory. Consulting Psychologist Press.
Tadokoro, Y., Horiuchi, S., Takahata, K., Shuo, T., Sawano, E., & Shinohara, K. (2017). Changes in salivary oxytocin after inhalation of clary sage essential oil scent in term-pregnant women: A feasibility pilot study. BMC Research Notes, 10(1). https://doi.org/10.1186/s13104-017-3053-3
Tisserand, R., Young, R., & Williamson, E. M. (2014). Essential Oil Safety: A Guide for Health Care Professionals. Churchill Livingstone/Elsevier.
Yazdkhasti, M., & Pirak, A. (2016). The effect of aromatherapy with lavender essence on severity of labor pain and duration of labor in primiparous women. Complementary Therapies in Clinical Practice, 25, 81–86. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ctcp.2016.08.008
Jenni Jenkins – Sekine is an Oklahoma City Bereavement, Birth, & Postpartum doula and Child Birth Educator who serves her Central Oklahoma community. She is also a midwifery assistant with Holistic Birthing Services and began her journey as a student midwife with the Midwives College of Utah in 2022.
To learn more about Jenni, please click here.