Labor is a pain. Literally.

If you deliver at a hospital, you’ll probably have a number of options available to help ease some of the discomfort. But if you’re not OK using pain medication and/or plan to have a natural birth, you might want to consider alternative treatments.

Essential oils may help treat backaches, nausea, ankle aches, and a number of other discomforts that come with the beautiful miracle of birth.

Research has found that aromatherapy, along with a massage, can help you relax during labor. It might also alleviate some of the pain. It could even help induce labor if you’re past due. Be sure to talk to your doctor before you try that, though.

What is aromatherapy?

Aromatherapy involves massaging essential oils into your skin and inhaling them. The oils are extracted from plants and distilled.

A study published in Complementary Therapies in Nursing and Midwifery found that aromatherapy was effective in reducing labor anxiety, fear, and in some cases, pain.

Keep in mind that essential oils are very concentrated and potent. Essential oils must always be diluted in a carrier oil before they touch the skin. If diffused into the air, remove pets and children from the area. Do not use essential oils on an infant. Proceed with caution and don’t use more than the recommended amount. Essential oils should not be ingested.

Essential oils are not well studied yet. We don’t know enough about them yet to be able to say that they’re safe in pregnancy or labor.

How do I use essential oils?

There are various ways to use essential oils, but the most common are massaging and inhaling.

To massage oil into your skin, dilute a drop or two with a teaspoon of carrier oil such as grapeseed oil. You can also use sweet almond oil if you’re not allergic to nuts. Have your partner massage the oil into your feet, temples, or lower back.

If you’re over being touched or probed, you can also simply inhale the aroma. Add two drops into a vaporizer. For a warm bath, mix 4 drops with a carrier oil, then add to running water. Let your lungs do the work while you bask in the calming scent.

Essential oils for labor

Only certain essential oils are usually safe to use during labor. And keep in mind, these are only OK to use if you’ve had a healthy, low-risk pregnancy. Some of the potential risks include allergic reactions, skin irritation, nausea, and headache.

In a meta-analysis of 17 clinical trials of low-risk pregnant women, aromatherapy helped to reduce labor pain in the transition phase as well as reduce the duration of the active phase of labor (when a woman is delivering her baby). When used in low-risk pregnant women, the authors didn’t find any evidence that essential oils caused pregnancy complications like membrane rupture or emergency C-section.

Try sniffing various oils before you go into labor. Some scents will appeal to you more than others and it’s not necessary to indulge in them all. As always, talk to your doctor or midwife to get the most up-to-date information about essential oils. There’s no scientific evidence that they’re safe for pregnancy.

Before applying to the skin, essential oils must be diluted in a carrier oil. Here are five of the essential oils and their uses that some moms swear by.

1. Frankincense

Frankincense is a calming oil that’s especially useful toward the end of the first stage of labor. One study of 126 women who hadn’t had a baby before found women who used frankincense aromatherapy during labor reported less pain intensity than women who didn’t inhale frankincense.

Place diluted oil on the center of both of your palms, or rub some onto your lower back and tummy. Besides relieving pain, this essential oil can also help heal a tear after childbirth.

2. Clary sage

Clary sage is the best option when it comes to minimizing tearing and relieving muscle tension resulting from emotional stress. It’s also thought to induce labor.

A small pilot study of 11 women giving birth for the first time found that oxytocin levels tended to increase for about 15 minutes after inhaling clary sage. Oxytocin is associated with causing uterine contractions. However, the sample size was so small, it’s tough to know what effect clary sage truly has on labor.

Doulas are a big fan of this essential oil. When applied at the last stages of labor, the mother can really get into a euphoric state, instead of threatening vengeance on the father of the child.

To use, dilute a few drops and apply on skin over reproductive organs. Or, place a few diluted drops on each palm and inhale between contractions.

Note: Clary sage can induce labor, so don’t use this unless you’re ready to give birth and have consulted with your doctor. If you get the OK, place a couple drops of diluted oil on your inner ankles.

3. Peppermint oil

Peppermint oil can help with exhaustion, nausea, heat, and aches during labor. A study of 128 women who hadn’t given birth before were given either peppermint oil to inhale or no peppermint oil. At the study’s conclusion, the researchers found women who inhaled peppermint oil reported less anxiety and pain levels than women who didn’t.

Massage the diluted oil into back, hips, and temples — avoid your eyes. For a burst of energy, inhale the aroma direct from the bottle. Spearmint is an alternative.

4. Bitter orange

Bitter orange or citrus aurantium oil brings forth a soothing, citrus scent that’s said to relieve anxiety in laboring moms.

A study of 126 laboring moms, some of whom inhaled diluted bitter-orange-soaked gauzes, found women reported less anxiety when inhaling the bitter orange.

Bitter orange also pairs well with lavender oil to create a soothing, yet invigorating scent.

5. Lavender

The fear and anxiety of childbirth can be as crippling as the physical challenges. The scent of lavender oil calms the nerves. One study of 121 low-risk, first-time moms who smelled lavender or did not found women who inhaled lavender reported less anxiety.

Note: Lavender alone isn’t thought to induce labor, but it’s often blended with oils that are believed to induce labor.

The takeaway

Before you lube up on essential oils, research the products and where they’re coming from. Let your doctor know your aromatherapy plans ahead of time.

Remember these cautions:

  • Never take essential oils by mouth (AKA, don’t swallow them).
  • Always dilute essential oils in a carrier oil.
  • Never apply (even diluted) essential oils to a newborn.
  • Don’t use essential oils in the same room as a newborn.

If you get really into essential oils, you can hire an aromatherapist to be available during your labor for added support.