Aromatherapy oil bottles and flowers Aromatherapy — the use of fragrant essential oils to boost health and well-being, uplift your mood or make you feel better — can have benefits for children as a complement to conventional medicine. Used safely, aromatherapy can help children (and adults) feel calmer and sleep better. It can also help to reduce the perception of nausea, discomfort and pain. Used improperly, though, the essential oils of aromatherapy can be harmful and even dangerous.

We spoke with Lisa Squires, RN, BSN, CCRN-K, HNB-BC, a clinical nurse with the Integrative Health Program at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, about safe practices when using aromatherapy with children.

“Aromatherapy has grown in popularity over the last few years,” says Squires. “And much of that popularity is justified. Aromatherapy can be incredibly helpful, especially in calming a child who is tense. But with the growth in the use of essential oils has come an increase in the incidence of poisoning, skin injuries and other health problems from incautious practices.”

Safe use of aromatherapy

  • Limit the use of aromatherapy to children over the age of 3. There is not enough clinical research to support its use with younger children, Squires explains, and the risks of negative reactions are too high.
  • Use only the essential oils that have been studied and found to be safe and effective for use with children over the age of 3. These include lavender, peppermint, citrus, such as sweet orange or mandarin, and ginger. Choosing from these four options, try different oils to find the ones your child finds pleasurable and calming.
  • Buy essential oils from a reliable source. Choose a source that sells pure oils, not synthetic fragrances. The label should state the common and Latin name of the plant, the part of the plant used to make the oil, the country of origin and how the oil was extracted. Sources Squires knows to be reliable include Natural Options Aromatherapy, The Herbarium and SunRose Aromatics.
  • Have your child use a personal inhaler. These typically take the form of a small tube with a cap, like a lipstick or lip-balm tube. The essential oils are within the tube, where they can’t touch the skin. Your child removes the cap to smell the oil when they want its calming or mood-brightening effects.
  • Teach your child how to use the inhaler safely, which includes not placing the plastic tube in their mouth or touching the oils inside it.
  • Keep essential oils in a secure place, out of the reach of young children.

Aromatherapy practices to avoid

Squires cautions parents to remember that just because essential oils are natural, it doesn’t mean they are safe. Essential oils are highly concentrated extracts from plants. They can be toxic if swallowed and cause irritation or burns if applied directly to the skin. To keep everyone safe:

  • Never swallow aromatherapy oils, even in diluted form.
  • Never apply the pure oils directly to the skin.
  • Avoid the use of water-based diffusers, which disperse the fragrance throughout a room for extended periods. Overexposure to aerosols with essential oils in them can irritate the lungs, eyes and skin of young children, sensitive adults and even pets. After 20 minutes the brain “ignores” the smell and the benefit is somewhat lost. This also leads people to add more oil because they are no longer smelling it, which can lead to rebound headaches and other symptoms. Standing water can also breed bacteria that can be harmful.
  • Never use heat to diffuse the oil’s fragrance into the air. Essential oils are flammable.
  • Never use aromatherapy in place of conventional medicine. Consider it as a complement to the care provided by your child’s doctor.

Aromatherapy practices to use with care

While a personal inhaler, carefully used, is the simplest and safest aromatherapy method, several other practices can be effective if used with care.

  • A wind-down aromatherapy bath can be wonderfully relaxing, but the essential oils must first be mixed with another substance. When put in the bath in pure form, the oils stay on the surface of the water and can irritate a child’s skin and eyes. Thoroughly mix a few drops of essential oil with a tablespoon of milk or baking soda and add that mixture to the bathwater.
  • An aromatherapy massage can also be relaxing, but, again, the oil must first be diluted. For a calming aromatherapy massage, add one or two drops of essential oil to an ounce of unscented lotion or vegetable-based oil, such as jojoba, almond or olive oil.
  • An aromatherapy spray can be made by mixing a few drops of essential oil with two ounces of witch hazel in a spritzer bottle. You might use this as a pillow spray before bedtime. If a child (over the age of 3) is having nightmares or is afraid of the dark, it can also be used as a “monster spray” to make the bed feel safe at night.

“Aromatherapy can be wonderfully beneficial for kids and adults,” Squires says. “Used with care, it can be a fun addition to a family’s stress-management toolkit.”

Contributed by: Lisa Squires, RN, BSN, CCRN-K, HNB-BC

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