Health fads come and go, but essential oils have been used reliably and extensively in medicine for thousands of years.
Aromatherapy, or essential oil therapy, can be defined as the medicinal use of naturally extracted plant aromas to promote physical and emotional well-being. Aromatic plant extracts have many uses, from treating burns and soothing skin, to alleviating stress and relaxing the mind.
On babies older than 3 months, some essential oils can be used to help encourage sleep, calm anxiety, and even relieve symptoms of colic. Before applying essential oils to babies, it’s important to understand proper dilution ratios and application methods.
Because essential oils are widely available today, check product labels to make sure you are using pure, authentic, unadulterated essential oils. Essential oils that are premixed with alcohol can be irritating. You should also avoid synthetic fragrances, which are completely different from essential oils, don’t carry health benefits, and can be irritating to the skin.
Essential oils to use
Each essential oil is different. While other essential oils may be safe for use on infants and babies, these essential oils have been deemed generally safe when used properly and in moderation. Unless otherwise specified, follow the dilution ratios and applications explained below. Never apply essential oils directly to the skin, always mix them with a carrier oil. Babies should never drink or ingest essential oils. While it is recommended for adults to take some oils orally, this is never safe for babies.
Chamomile (Matricaria chamomilla or Chamaemelum nobile)
German chamomile and Roman chamomile are gentle essential oils that can be beneficial for babies who have trouble sleeping.
Chamomile has natural soothing effects and is traditionally used to treat insomnia in babies and adults. Chamomile, along with lavender, can relieve symptoms of colic. Chamomile has also been shown to help anxiety and depression, and can uplift a fussy baby’s spirits.
Distilled lemon (Citrus limon)
Distilled lemon can help lift energy and mood, and is great for a post-nap wakeup call.
Distilled lemon is preferable to expressed lemon for babies. Expressed lemon is a potential photosensitizer, whereas distilled lemon should not cause skin irritation.
Dill (Anethum sowa)
Dill is a calming, antispasmodic oil that can help soothe indigestion. To use, dilute dill in a ratio of 1 drop per teaspoon of water or oil, blend thoroughly, and massage the mixture onto a baby’s skin.
Eucalyptus (Eucalpytus radiata)
Eucalyptus is a natural expectorant that can help unclog respiratory congestion.
This makes Eucalyptus a favorite during the cold winter months. Note: Eucalpytus radiata is a different species than the commonly found Eucalyptus globulus. Children and infants should use Eucalpytus radiata. While Eucalyptus globulus is safe for adults, it should not be used on children under the age of 2.
Contact your pediatrician before using eucalyptus to ease respiratory symptoms.
Lavender (Lavandula angustifolia)
Lavender has many calming and sedative effects. A lavender oil massage can help to relax a fussy baby and encourage sleep.
Lavender can also be used on insect bites and to reduce itchiness. A recent study shows lavender to be effective in alleviating the symptoms of colic.
Mandarin (Citrus reticulata)
Mandarin has calming effects similar to lavender, making it a great nighttime alternative for babies who are irritated by the scent of lavender.
The sweet scent of mandarin is favorable to other orange varieties because it’s not phototoxic. This means that even when diluted and applied directly to the skin, it shouldn’t cause skin irritation.
Tea tree (Melaleuca alternifolia)
Tea tree is a natural antimicrobial, antifungal, and disinfectant. Adding a few drops of tea tree to an unscented oil can help with diaper rash and fungal infections.
Tea tree is a stronger oil that can be harsh on the skin, so it should be avoided on babies younger than 6 months old and carefully patch-tested on older infants.
Essential oils are extremely potent and must be diluted with a carrier oil or cream when used on the skin.
Dilution is especially important for infants and young children. For babies older than 3 months, the National Association for Holistic Aromatherapy (NAHA) recommends a safe dilution ratio of .5 to 1 percent, compared to a 2.5 to 10 percent dilution for adults. Because babies have more sensitive skin than adults, the American Association of Naturopathic Physicians notes that essential oils should not be used at all on infants under 3 months old.
Even when diluted, essential oils can cause skin irritation and sun sensitivity. It’s recommended that a patch test (also sometimes called a “spot test”) be performed on the skin, with each new oil introduced.
Perform a patch test
- Apply a small (no larger than a dime) amount of diluted essential oil to a baby’s leg or arm.
- Wait for 24 hours to see if there is a reaction.
- If a reaction occurs, discontinue use (a reaction would likely cause redness, inflammation, or be painful to the touch).
- If no reaction occurs, it is likely safe to move forward with applying the essential oil.
According to the NAHA, “some essential oils should simply be avoided [on babies], e.g. birch or wintergreen, which are both rich in methyl salicylate and peppermint.”
Essential oils should never be used internally by children or infants, and should be kept out of infants’ baths to avoid accidental ingestion.
The following topical treatments are safe and effective when proper dilution ratios are followed.
Blend with a carrier
Vegetable oil, coconut oil, and sweet almond oil are commonly used base oils that mix well with essential oils. They also bring their own moisturizing qualities and help to nourish the skin.
Peanut oil is commonly mixed into base oils so be sure to check the ingredients list of your base oil for any potential allergens.
To blend, dilute an essential oil at a ratio of 0.5 percent essential oil to base oil. Shake or mix vigorously to blend. Once the oils are thoroughly blended, perform a patch test on your baby’s leg or arm to insure the formula is nonirritating.
Spritz the diluted essential oil around your baby’s room to create a calming scent before naps or bedtime. Avoid spritzing pillows so as to make sure your baby doesn’t accidentally ingest the oils.
Essential oils are an effective, natural alternative to artificial room fresheners. While adults can use candle diffusers, water-based vaporizers make for a safer, flame-free way to spread a scent throughout any room of your house.
When trying out a new essential oil around your baby, test a small amount of each new oil in a vaporizer for an hour to insure that no irritation occurs.
Talk to a doctor
Because some essential oils shouldn’t be used with certain medications and medical conditions, always check with your doctor before applying therapeutic oils to your baby.
If you’re pregnant, talk to your doctor before using any essential oils on yourself or your baby.