Your baby has a stuffy nose and cannot breathe easily. Your baby has been crying because of a gassy tummy, and you have tried everything you can think of to help her. Your baby is overtired, but will not sleep. Is there anything you can do?
This seems like a straightforward question, but, unfortunately, it is actually quite complicated, as the "experts" disagree in this particular area, making it very confusing for parents who are just trying to help their babies be more comfortable.
First and foremost, it is safe to say that one should not give babies essential oils in any manner that would be considered "internal" use. Do not add them to a bottle or put them in a baby's mouth. Although there has been research that has used this method, it is neither necessary nor safe enough to outweigh the possible risks.
Second, there are quite a few essential oils that one should not use around a baby this young at all, peppermint being near the top of the list of "no-nos." Check any blends you have purchased for higher risk essential oil ingredients.
While there are only a handful of essential oils that one should use with a young baby, especially a newborn, whether you are considering environmental use, such as diffusion, or topical application, this short list can help with just about every possible concern from digestive upset to stuffy noses. Essential oils that might be used would be:
Roman chamomile (Chamaemelum nobile)
Frankincense (Boswellia spp.)
True lavender (Lavandula angustifolia)
Sweet marjoram (Origanum marjorana)
Mandarin or tangerine (Citrus reticulata)
Finally, to address the initial question, is there anything we can do to help a distressed baby? There are two methods we might consider: topical and inhaled use.
When considering inhaled use, environmental use, such as room sprays and various forms of diffusion are the first approach we can try. Diffusion around babies should be of light and short term. Sometimes it can be better to put 1 drop of an essential oil on a cotton ball placed out of reach on top of a shelf or chest of drawers than to use an electronic diffuser.
Babies have a heightened and sensitive sense of smell and can easily be overwhelmed by environmental aromas. Babies are also already exposed to so many different chemicals in our air and water that adding to that load may be overwhelming for their little bodies. If the environmental exposure seems to be too much for the baby, turn off or remove the source of essential oils (diffuser, cotton ball, etc.) open a window, remove the baby from the room, and let the room air out before returning.
Another environmental approach is to put the appropriately diluted essential oil on the parent holding the baby. The baby will be exposed to the essential oil without coming in contact with it. Again, be aware of the baby's heightened sense of smell when determining how much of an essential oil blend to use. You may be able to use far less that you would consider using for yourself.
Babies also have very permeable skin, so topical use must be considered very carefully. This is where the use of essential oils becomes more controversial. A few examples of the recommendations by reputable aromatherapy leaders regarding topical use with young babies:
- Robert Tisserand, the leading safety expert on essential oils, recommends that essential oils be diluted to 0.1-0.2% for babies 0-3 months of age.*
- *If you choose to apply essential oils topically, choose newborn-appropriate oils, dilute to Robert Tisserand's recommendation, and apply the oils to baby's back, chest, or feet. Keep them away from baby's face and hands.
- Both Lea Harris of Using Essential Oils Safely and Jessie Hawkins of Vintage Remedies recommend not using essential oils topically with children under 6 months of age.
- Andrea Butje of the Aromahead Institute recommends that essential oils not be used directly with babies under the age of 2 years.
Who is correct? What can a parent do?
My recommendation is to ask yourself a series of questions when you consider using an essential oil, especially when you are considering topical applications:
Have I exhausted all other possible remedies?
Essential oils are not your only alternative for natural remedies. There are also other natural sources out there other than essential oils, such as gripe water for colic and hydrosols for diaper rash or room sprays. Essential oils may be convenient, but they are neither the only option nor the safest option.
How important is it that I "fix" this problem right now?
Babies are in pain when they have gas, but they will get over it on their own. If a baby is truly struggling to breathe, it may be more appropriate to call the doctor or even call 911 instead of trying to rectify it on your own.
What is the risk of using an essential oil and is it worth taking that risk with my precious baby compared to allowing the problem to resolve itself naturally?
Just because something is natural does NOT mean it is safe. I think this is the biggest misconception regarding natural remedies, particularly essential oils. Sometimes natural remedies are safe-ER than a synthetic remedy, but safety is relative in all cases. Even natural remedies need to be used with education, understanding, and discretion.
Our newborns are so very precious. Always weigh the risk you incur when using a remedy to the risk of harm if you do nothing. Babies appreciate being touched, held, rocked, sung to, and loved. Oftentimes that is truly enough, even when we wish we could do more to help baby feel comfortable.
My recommendation? This is my approach with my grandchildren:
Try every comfort measure possible before considering any kind of "chemical" intervention, whether natural or synthetic. Hold, rock, sing to, and love your baby. Sometimes baths or steamy bathrooms can help.
Try Roman chamomile or lavender hydrosol from a reputable retailer. Dilute it (yes, for newborns hydrosols should also be diluted) and spray it around baby, onto baby's bedding, on yourself as you hold baby, or onto baby directly in some cases.
I will be the first to admit that this is very tough sometimes when you really want to help your baby be more comfortable, but the newborn period is relatively short compared to all the years your baby has ahead of her. You will have plenty of opportunities to use essential oils in the years ahead. For now, reserve your essential oils for your own use, for house cleaning, and to influence your environment (e.g. drop of essential oil on a cotton ball on a shelf, diffuser, etc.), and for yourself to keep yourself calm as much as possible while dealing with baby's difficulties.
References and other resources:
Robert Tisserand dilution information graphic
Robert Tisserand infographic on hydrosol safety with young children
Robert Tisserand explanation of the terms "hazard" and "risk"
Robert Tisserand infographic on using peppermint and eucalyptus with children http://tisserandinstitute.org/learn-more/kids-inhalation-safety/
Lea Harris and Using Essential Oils Safely with children
Andrea Butje's recommendation for how to use essential oils around babies