By Natalie Lütge (Birth Doula, Maternal Aromatherapist & Herbalist)
Postpartum Maternal Support
The greatest struggle in this area is mostly hormonal and emotional, tied in with extreme physical demands such as healing after the birth; breastfeeding; lack of sleep; minimal time for self-care; and in some cases, a fussy baby. Most new mothers struggle during this time, more so during the first 3-4 weeks when newborn demands are the highest, breastfeeding is new and painful, and they are undergoing a new transition into motherhood; this time can feel greatly overwhelming and women need as much support as possible.
When low moods or depressive episodes strike; calming and uplifting oils such as lavender, neroli, mandarin, jasmine, rose, bergamot, petitgrain, frankincense, vetiver, rose geranium, and geranium can bring comfort, emotional lightness and a sense of gentle optimism while soothing the nerves and encouraging a calmer state to assist with insomnia, anxiety, frustration and sadness.
Afterbirth pains can be quite mild for some women while others may suffer with them; oils such as German chamomile, clary sage, lavender, geranium, frankincense and jasmine can assist with pain relief while helping the uterus contract down to its original size faster.
Some women may also experience tearing or episiotomies during the birth which may require gentle and speedy healing; oils such as lavender, tea tree, calendula, myrrh, geranium, jasmine and German or Roman chamomile can help ease the pain, swelling and inflammation of the injury site, and accelerate the bodies healing processes while keeping the area clean and free from infection. Note though, that douching is not recommended in general, more so during the postnatal period, and essential oils should never be administered internally (this includes the vagina); sitz bathing or gentle rinsing with salt (sodium chloride or magnesium phosphate) is a non-invasive option that is effective enough for healing and cleansing of the intimate, genital area.
There are so many benefits to breastfeeding for both a mother and her baby relating to the infant microbiome, intimate bonding, nourishment, involution of the uterus, infant immunity, maternal health and the emotional security of the newborn. During the first 3 days after birth, a mother’s breasts will secrete only colostrum; a rich substance that’s loaded with antibodies to protect the infant from potential disease and infection from the outside world. This colostrum is vital to the building and maturing of the infant’s microbiome as it is rich in special HMO’s (human milk oligosaccharides); a special sugar that helps to keep an infant’s blood sugar levels stable and ‘feeds’ the good bacteria within the infant’s gut (thus strengthening the infant’s microbiome). Colostrum is much thicker than breast milk which requires a baby to suck hard at the breast (super beneficial for preventing SIDS) and this can cause the nipples to feel painful and sensitive; applying colostrum to the nipples can help, while others find that pure lanolin helps as well. Another option, in terms of aromatherapy, can be to apply skin-healing oils that are non-toxic, such as calendula or German chamomile, immediately after each feed. While these oils can be quite soothing and non-toxic, one must always be sure to wipe the nipple area clean, with a damp cloth, before each feed. Although some natural remedies seem to include comfrey in their ingredients, it is important to take note that this oil is toxic when ingested and is therefore not recommended for topical use on the nipples during lactation.
After the first three days, a woman’s prolactin and oxytocin levels begin to surge and her milk will begin to ‘set in’ and ‘let down’ as it rapidly increases in volume with a more watery consistency; this is what we refer to as ‘breast milk’. During this time, a woman may need to feed her baby more regularly and in some cases, the excess milk may need to be expressed to prevent breast engorgement. A woman’s breasts may feel swollen and hard; painful and sensitive when touched; and somewhat ‘lumpy’ in some areas where the milk ducts are clogged or inflamed. While it is important to effectively empty each breast at each feed to prevent engorgement and possible mastitis, pain and inflammation may still be present leading to sensitivity and discomfort. Oils such as frankincense, lavender, grapefruit and German Chamomile (dosed and blended correctly) can be gently massaged into to the breast area to assist with pain, swelling, congestion, inflammation and discomfort, while protecting the skin from potential damage caused from the rapid stretching due to engorgement. These oils should be diluted with carrier oils such as hemp seed, marula, avocado, coconut or apricot kernel which are rich in anti-inflammatory, skin nourishing, and immune boosting properties to help prevent infection and skin damage.
The first 3-4 weeks of breastfeeding can sometimes be emotionally and mentally challenging for multiple reasons including: pain and discomfort, engorgement, frequent feeding, etc. This time can bring a wide range of feelings from discouragement, self-doubt, frustration, anger and even sadness. Aromatherapy during this time can be used for stimulating a sense of optimism and comfort to help a woman journey through this time with less mental and emotional strain. Oils such as lavender, frankincense, jasmine, rose, geranium, vetiver, patchouli, violet, Roman chamomile, bergamot, cypress, mandarin, neroli, grapefruit, petitgrain, sweet orange, marjoram, spearmint, vanilla, and benzoin (when dosed, blended and administered correctly) can be helpful in relieving emotional, mental and even physical strain through this time.
Between 3 and 6 weeks, a mother may notice her supply ‘dropping’ to lower levels than what she had before and while this can be comforting regarding the physical discomfort of engorgement, it can also be quite frightening and concerning for others. This stage of breastfeeding is completely normal and it does not mean that a woman is ‘running out’ of milk; it is simply her natural supply-and-demand system that is in the process of learning balance. It is important to feed frequently during this time, preferably on demand, while the body finds a balance in its milk supply. In rare cases, where low milk supply becomes an issue of no longer being able to properly nourish a baby, it is important to seek the advice and guidance of a lactation specialist and medical professional. Should this be the case, basil, hops, dill, lavender and geranium oil (when dosed correctly) can be used to stimulate the milk producing glands and hormones when massaged into the breasts and used in conjunction with a healthy diet (rich in protein, water, vitamins and minerals, and milk-producing foods); plenty of skin-to-skin; and as much suckling at the breast as possible (even for infant comfort) to stimulate oxytocin and prolactin, thus assisting with milk production and let-down. While fennel oil is another great alternative, one must be careful when using it; only small doses are needed; it should not be used for longer than a week; and it should always be used during lactation under the guidance of a qualified professional.
So often, a woman’s diet can greatly affect the gut of an infant, especially during the first 6 weeks, and a diet that is rich in gas-producing, spicy, lactose, sugar or caffeinated foods/drinks can cause immense discomfort for an infant, which can present in symptoms such as cramps, reflux, excessive gas build-up and flatulence, inflammation of the colon, bright red stools, and even colic (in severe cases). While a healthy and balanced diet (preferably void of the above mentioned foods) is vital when breastfeeding, there are also some essential oils such as dill, fennel, German chamomile and myrrh that a woman can use on herself (when dosed and administered correctly) to bring comfort to the infant for these types of digestive complaints. As these oils absorb into the bloodstream of the nursing mother, a small amount is passed through the breast milk, bringing relief to the baby. When these same oils are diffused correctly (method and dosage) for the baby, these small molecules get inhaled and can bring relief to the infant’s digestive system as well. Other oils such as lavender, frankincense and German chamomile can also be diffused or applied with gentle, circular massage to the infant’s abdomen or under the feet (under the strict guidance of a qualified Aromatherapist and medical professional) to help bring further relief.
Lactation is an area that is influenced by a delicate hormonal balance and one must always be careful when using essential oils during this time. Each essential oil has its own recommended dosage, administration and course duration for use, which is why it is important to seek advice from a qualified Aromatherapist first, to equip you with the safe method and dosage for use.
The newborn stage, specifically the first 4 weeks, is an incredible and exciting time full of bonding, discovery and falling in love, but it can also be a very challenging time for some mothers and even some newborns. While this time can feel rather easy for some women, it may not be the case for others: Sleepless nights; abrupt bodily changes; intense hormonal fluctuations and sharing her body around-the-clock, on-demand, with a little human she’s still getting to know, can often feel incredibly overwhelming. Some women may not feel that motherhood comes instinctively or naturally and some may even experience constant anxiety and fear over the safety, health and general state of their newborn baby. Some women may struggle to bond with their baby and some can even feel like a failure as a mother when they have a newborn that cries a lot or when they feel lost in their abilities and emotions towards themselves, their babies, and even their spouses. All of these factors can lead to low self-esteem; insecurity; poor habits; neglect in self-care and basic hygiene; anxiety; unstable moods; depression; anger and frustration; uncontrollable emotional outbursts/displays; and even a sense of hopelessness.
It is important for a new mother to get as much bed rest as possible (even if she is not sleeping); hydration; balanced nutrition; and physical and emotional support. Aromatherapy for a new mother during this stage is focused mostly on emotional care and promoting physical and mental relaxation. Oils such as frankincense, lavender, rose, Roman chamomile, jasmine, clary sage, benzoin, mandarin, geranium, gardenia, rose geranium, neroli, palmarosa, sweet orange, grapefruit, petitgrain, bergamot, vetiver, violet and cypress (when dosed, blended and administered correctly, under the appropriate circumstances) can help to calm the nervous system; balance unstable emotions and fluctuating hormones; promote physical rest and relaxation; stimulate a sense of security and gentle optimism; encourage deeper sleep cycles; and calm troubled or anxious thoughts.
Some newborns can adjust to the outside world with greater ease than others and those that do not, may cry excessively; show signs of restlessness, frustration and discomfort; struggle with feeding and sleeping; may be unresponsive to affection; and express signs of anxiety, insecurity and stress. This can cause many negative physiological, psychological and neurological effects on a baby if left unchecked. While aromatherapy can be quite helpful, it is extremely important to note that a newborn baby’s physiological and metabolic systems are still immature and incredibly sensitive; they are unable to properly metabolise the chemical molecules of essential oils and this can lead to toxicity, organ damage (even failure), and severe adverse reactions such as seizures, convulsions, fluctuating blood pressure, difficulty breathing, inflammation or burning of the internal mucous membranes, etc.; therefore, a newborn needs to be introduced to essential oils as gently, slowly and non-invasively as possible. Any baby under the age of 8-12 weeks should preferably not be exposed to essential oils at all, but in extreme cases, when a newborn may benefit from aromatherapy, only lavender, dill and German/Roman chamomile may be used in extremely low doses and under the appropriate circumstances; these oils should preferably not be applied topically and should always be used under the guidance of a qualified Aromatherapist and medical professional.
As a baby passes the age of 8-12 weeks old, additional oils and topical administration can slowly be introduced into their routine. The Bryan Lütge Naturals Baby Bath Drops and Massage Oil are great options when introducing an older baby to the world of aromatherapy, especially for the introduction of topical application, in a gentle and non-invasive way.
Safety Considerations within Aromatherapy
Now that you have run through how aromatherapy can benefit the maternal journey, it is also incredibly important to note that this therapy can be intensely effective and can cause profound physiological, hormonal, psychological and emotional responses from the body due to the individual chemical composition of the oils and how these chemicals affect each individual. Therefore, it is imperative that you practice responsible use of essential oils during the maternal period, preferably with the advice and guidance of a qualified Aromatherapist who specialises in maternal care; even more so if:
Your pregnancy is classed as high risk
You’ve had fertility or hormone treatments
You’re attempting a vaginal birth for the first time after a cesarean
You’re on any medication or herbal supplements
You have any serious medical, neurological, hormonal or psychological conditions
You’re attempting a home birth
You’ve never used essential oils before
The practice of aromatherapy is a complementary/supportive/integrative therapy that works alongside standard, allopathic healthcare – it does not replace it – it is important to be sure to practice open communication with all your care providers regarding which therapies/treatments you are currently undergoing, to ensure that all treatments, when combined, serve your maternal journey in a safe, effective and balanced way.