Aromatherapy is the use of essential oils from the flowers, roots, leaves, seeds, bark or peel of certain plants to help boost your mood or make you feel better. Used thoughtfully and carefully, aromatherapy can help children, as well as adults, feel calmer and sleep better. It is also shown to reduce nausea, discomfort and pain.
We spoke with Vanessa Battista, RN, MS, CPNP, a pediatric nurse practitioner at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP) who has studied the practice of aromatherapy as a complement to conventional medicine. She advises families on the use of aromatherapy as a member of CHOP’s Integrative Health team.
“Aromatherapy can have real benefits to children,” says Battista. “But people need to be informed and take seriously the very real risks of improper use.”
Ways to introduce aromatherapy
We’re all familiar with the pleasure that comes from an enjoyable smell, whether it’s the fragrance of a flower or a food, or a scent we associate with good memories. There are various theories as to how exactly aromatherapy works, but some believe that by activating specific smell receptors in the nose, aromatherapy causes the brain to send messages to areas of the nervous system that affect mood and other symptoms.
So, how can aromatherapy help your child? Aromatherapy can help calm a child who is anxious or under stress, reduce nausea, discomfort and pain, and promote healthy sleep.
Four aromatherapy oils have been determined to be both safe and effective for use with children over age 5: lavender, peppermint, orange and ginger.
Of these, lavender is the one Battista suggests trying first. Many children like the smell, and it is generally effective in calming a child who is anxious. Orange has more of a mood lifting effect. Peppermint is also popular with kids, but is not safe for use around women in the first trimester of pregnancy and people with certain cardiac diseases.
“Try different fragrances to see which one your child likes the most,” says Battista. “Aromatherapy only works if a child enjoys the smell and finds it calming or uplifting. Different people have different smell preferences and associations.”
Battista has another key piece of advice: “Make it fun. Find a fragrance your child likes and give them a tool they enjoy using. That might be a diffuser in the bedroom or a personal inhaler they can keep with them to use when they want help calming down or need a mood boost. Giving your child control of the therapy is also part of its effectiveness.”
Personal inhalers come in different forms: plastic or aluminum containers with a wick inside, and tubes that look like glue sticks but are meant to be smelled.
Battista gives the example of a child who was afraid of imagined monsters at night. His parents gave him a lavender spray to use to ward them off. She encourages parents to use their creativity and understanding of their child’s needs and personality to find safe, fun and effective ways to try aromatherapy.
The oils used in aromatherapy are called “essential” in the sense that they are the extracted essence of a plant’s fragrance. That processing results in highly concentrated oils which can be toxic if swallowed and harmful if applied in pure form to the skin. As oils, they are also flammable.
Battista wants to be sure families understand these important safety precautions:
- Never ingest (swallow) aromatherapy oils. Store the oils and aromatherapy products in a safe place where children won’t be tempted to taste them.
- Never apply the pure oils directly to the skin. For that use, obtain a version of the oil that has been diluted with a carrier oil or lotion.
- Never diffuse the fragrance from the oil into the air by heating with a direct flame. The oils can catch fire.
- When using a water-based diffuser, clean the container daily. Standing water can breed bacteria and mold, and you don’t want to diffuse that into the air your family is breathing.
Battista has one more caution. “Know what you are using and where it comes from,” she advises. “Buy from a reliable source.” She explains that the label should show five key pieces of information:
- Common name of the plant (lavender, for example)
- Latin name (Lavandula angustifolia is the Latin name for English lavender)
- Part of the plant used to make the oil (such as leaf, flower, seed or root)
- Country of origin
- How the oil was extracted (steam distilled, for example)
If the label doesn’t show this information, you may be buying an inferior and possibly ineffective product. Sources Battista knows to be reliable include Natural Options Aromatherapy, The Herbarium and SunRose Aromatics.