Fragrant healers

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The discomforts of pregnancy are no laughing matter – from the initial waves of nausea, through to backache, haemorrhoids, indigestion and more, there’s a whole alphabet of ouches awaiting the mother-to-be. The really unfunny part though, is that there is often little that can be done to ease these discomforts without risking the health of the baby.

One option for expectant mums is to seek help from an aromatherapist, as essential oils have been used for centuries to manage a variety of complaints. But are they safe? Certainly caution is warranted when expecting, as essential oils can have a strong effect on the body (pregnant or not) and there is some debate over whether essential oil molecules can pass through to the unborn baby. But, if you follow some safety guidelines and work with professionals, these oils may help smooth the bumpy road towards birth, and beyond.

Know your oils

It is important to first understand the difference between fragrance oils and essential oils. Fragrance oils are synthetic and used solely for their scent. Essential oils are the “essence” of a plant, usually derived by heating the plant and collecting the steam. Essential oils are natural, complex, chemical compounds that have therapeutic properties as well as fragrance.

Daniela Pelonara, the aromatherapist behind Native Essentials in Hong Kong (www.nativeessentials.com), explains that essential oils belong to a group of aromatherapy products known as “botanicals.” Cold-pressed oils, such as sweet almond oil, also fall under this heading, but are extracted by pressing the plant (as the name suggests), rather than by heating it. Cold-pressed oils, often referred to as “carrier oils,” are extremely safe and can be used throughout pregnancy for a variety of healing, nourishing and soothing purposes. Essential oils are more powerful and can assist in managing a whole range of gestational discomforts for the less-than-glowing, from insomnia to swollen feet – provided they are used with care.

Selecting the right oil is crucial. There are around 150 to 200 essential oils that have been rigorously tested in universities and are backed by clinical data. “The main essential oils used by the flavour industry, like lavender or peppermint, are very well tested,” says Daniela. Some of these oils are not considered safe for use in pregnancy, however, or only safe for the latter part of the gestational period (such as frankincense), due to their strength or possible effects on the mother or baby. “You need to select the oil that is appropriate, not only for the fact that you are pregnant, but for the trimester you are in.”

There are around 20 oils that are most often cited as being suitable when expecting. Even these oils should generally be used at lower dilutions than normal when treating pregnant women. Given the heightened sense of smell that most mums-to-be experience, the scent of the oil may be as important as its therapeutic aspects when you’re selecting the right ones for you. Susan Curtis, director of natural health and medicines at Neal’s Yard Remedies (www.nealsyardremedies.com), says that although allergic reactions are rare, those with sensitive skin should always undertake a patch test before trying a new oil.

Don’t rub it in

The application method is also important. Daniela stresses that essential oils should never be taken internally and should not be applied neat to the skin during pregnancy or on babies. One easy way to use essential oils is to inhale them – either using an oil burner, electronic diffuser or personal inhaler. Daniela recommends an inhaler specifically for first trimester nausea that includes a delicious-sounding cocktail of sweet orange, ginger and peppermint oils. Relaxing with a few aromatic drops in a warm bath is another time-honoured favourite in the lead-up to the big day – though never use an essential oil in a bath or birthing pool once your waters have broken.

For some complaints, more benefit can be gained by massaging essential oils, diluted in a carrier oil or lotion, directly into the skin (or convincing your partner to!). “Inhaling oils has an effect on your mood, on your sleep, on your mental state, as well as on your respiratory system. But if you put oils on your skin, they go through your bloodstream within 20 minutes. You can reach the muscle where you have physical pain, you can help your digestion, you can help your endocrine system, and more. So it’s actually a very complete action through your skin,” says Daniela. Massage is, of course, particularly helpful for muscle pain, and the addition of the right essential oil – such as roman chamomile, nicknamed “nature’s Panadol” – can make a soothing massage so much more beneficial.

It’s not just during the nine-month wait that essential oils can be useful. Susan points out that some clinical studies have shown aromatherapy to be helpful in managing labour pain – particularly using frankincense or lavender oils. Jasmine oil is not considered safe during pregnancy because it can cause the uterus to contract. However, Daniela points out that, “Jasmine will also help you to push, and to expel the placenta. We can then apply more jasmine for the few days following the birth to make sure the uterus starts to contract back.”

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Benefits for babies

Once baby arrives, essential oils can be used to calm nappy rashes, aid sleep, alleviate colic, and more. Daniela cautions, however, that no essential oil should be used with babies under three months. “Then, from three months up to 24 months is the most delicate stage, so I only use the mildest dilutions of a very small selection of essential oils and mainly focus on cold-pressed oils.” Soothing your little one with a fragrant massage before bed is a lovely introduction to carrier and essential oils for the new mum. Avoid putting oils on babies’ hands though, as we all know that hands usually find their way into eyes and mouths!

Another important safety consideration is the quality of the essential oil, as some products may be adulterated with synthetic components or similar-smelling oils. Susan says, “Always buy from a company that has a good reputation for aromatherapy products,” which includes knowing what botanical species the oil comes from and what the country of origin is. In addition, Daniela adds, “Essential oils are by-products of living plants, so they have a shelf life. The first rule is to check if it has an expiry date, usually between one and three years. They should also be in dark glass bottles because the light and the heat will change their chemical components.” In the Hong Kong climate, essential oils are best stored in the fridge with their lids tightly shut. Crucially, they must also be stored out of reach of curious toddlers, who may be intrigued by the teeny-tiny glass bottles, as some oils can be toxic if ingested.

If you are interested in exploring the fascinating world of botanicals whilst in the throes of baby-building, it’s best to speak to a qualified aromatherapist as well as your regular health practitioner. An aromatherapist who belongs to an international professional body should be able to assist you in safely choosing the right products for your budding babe, or for bringing back your bloom.

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