By: Leslie Moldenauer, CHNC, HHP, Certified Aromatherapist
It is such an exciting time, when a new baby enters the world. As parents, we will do just about anything to keep them healthy and safe from harm. Along with the joy of parenthood can come with it a certain amount of trepidation, we do not want to do anything that is not in their best interest. Research commences looking for the safest baby carriers, cribs and toys. So many fun moments watching them play and sleep, along with all the fun firsts that parents revel in. Sooner or later, one of the firsts will include their first illness, and nothing is harder than watching your baby be uncomfortable for the very first time. But are essential oils the answer?
You may have found conflicting information regarding essential oil use for infants and babies. There are some things that we do know, and we would like to share them with you. Safety is important to us at Plant Therapy, and we want our customers to be armed with the latest research and information.
Olfaction With Mothers And Their Newborns-From Smells To Smiles
Pheromones are chemicals that we all secrete. On a very basic level they are responsible for attraction or altering behavior. They are the reason for the first connection ingrained with mother and baby. Research shows that at the time of birth and during the first few weeks of life, newborns have a strong ability to recognize and distinguish their own mother, and vise versa (1). This is a main component in the deep bond that forms very early on in babies’ life, and it is this signature odor that brings immediate comfort-from smells to smiles.
Aromatherapy industry professionals agree that this olfactory memory development should not be interrupted. Science is amazing, and it is the reason why mothers are addicted to their offspring, quite literally.
Olfaction between mother and baby is one very important reason why we should limit the use of essential oils around a newborn. Let’s look at a few others.
Babies Skin Maturation
Newborns, although ready to enter the world after 40 weeks of gestation, have many body systems that have not reached maturity. The first system worth mentioning is their integumentary system; or skin, hair, nails, and exocrine glands. The integumentary system is the largest system of the body and is the protective barrier from chemicals, disease, and physical damage from the outside world.
The skin has three main layers: the epidermis, dermis, and subcutaneous (fat) layer. Neonatal skin does not mature until baby is around three months of age (2). This recent study performed in 2014, Biology and Function of Fetal and Pediatric Skin, states “Skin development is a continuous process, beginning in utero and continuing throughout life. The skin is anatomically mature at birth, but continues to functionally develop through the first year of life”(3).
For these reasons outlined above, newborn skin is much more permeable to essential oils than that of an older child, and should be extremely limited during the first three months of age. Essential oils for premature infants should be avoided all together. The risks include skin irritation, and adverse effects including immune sensitization (4).
The Central Nervous System (CNS) of a Baby
The CNS of children in general is consistently developing. The nervous system of a newborn is not fully mature at the time of birth, but is rather evolving and not fully mature for years after.
There are numerous ways to measure the development or maturity of a babies’ CNS, the first of which is a newborns’ eyesight. Infant vision, which starts out as nearly no vision at all, moves into shapes only at specific distances, then only black and white, and eventually matures to full vision at approximately the age of six months (5).
Sleep-wake patterns are another indicator of a maturing CNS. Dr. Susan Tucker Blackburn explains, in Maternal, Fetal, & Neonatal Physiology, that “Infant development entails increasing amounts of quiet sleep as well as increasing periods of quiet alertness. Both of these states reflect sophisticated neural control. Sustaining a state consistently or making a transition from one state to another requires tremendous neural organization (6).” This is proof of how constant a babies’ CNS is developing in the months after birth.
What does this mean for essential oil usage? Inhalation of essential oils communicates signals to the olfactory system, and in turn stimulates the brain to exert neurotransmitters. This means that all essential oils have an effect on the CNS on one level or another.
In looking at specific CNS activity in regards to essential oils, there are three categories: stimulants, depressants, and sedatives. Here are some very basic effects of each:
CNS Stimulants– Oils that can cause a heightened state of cognition and coordination. On a more extreme end, a CNS stimulant can cause seizures for some. For a complete list of oils that can potentially cause an increased risk of seizures, please review the latest research in Robert Tisserand’s book, Essential Oil Safety (7).
CNS Depressant– Oils that can cause depressed heart rate, blood pressure, and rate of breath. On a more extreme end can cause partial loss of coordination and memory impairment (8).
Sedative– Oils that can cause calmness and relaxation. Similar to CNS depressants, on a more extreme end can cause slurred speech, loss of reflexes, and possible impairment of judgment.
The latest research in Tisserand’s book, Essential Oil Safety, shows which essential oils should be limited with babies and small children.
What is Safe and Reasonable?
When can you safely begin utilizing essential oils topically for children? We at Plant Therapy feel that for ages two and under, a reasonable recommendation for the home user is to stick to diffusion. Tisserand recommends diffusing for no longer than 30-60 minutes before taking a break to avoid over exposure.
It is important to note that we are not firmly against topical use for children under two. We tend to follow the guidelines recommended by Tisserand, who states that essential oils can be used topically on small children, within reason.
Plant Therapy’s Dilution Guide:
Identifying and understanding the most recent research is important, as what we know is constantly changing and evolving. Exercising caution with the use of essential oils with babies and small children is paramount, although not completely restricted. If you have any additional questions regarding this topic, we invite you to reach out to one of our on staff aromatherapists at email@example.com.
(1) Vaglio, S. (2009) Chemical communication and mother-infant recognition. 2(3): 279-281. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2717541/
(2) Tisserand, R., Young, R. (2014) Essential Oil Safety (2nd Ed) Elsevier: London, UK. (p47)
(3) Leung, A., Balaju, S., Keswani, S., (2013) Biology and Function of Fetal and Pediatric Skin. 21(1): 1-6. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3654382/
(4) Dermal Safety, National Association of Holistic Aromatherapists. Retrieved from http://naha.org/explore-aromatherapy/safety/#dermal
(5) Eye and Vision Development. Retrieved from http://www.healthofchildren.com/E-F/Eye-and-Vision-Development.html
(6) Nervous System Development (2014) Retrieved from https://www.thevisualmd.com/health_centers/child_health/infant_nutrition/nervous_system_development
(7) Tisserand, R., Young, R. (2014) Essential Oil Safety (2nd Ed) Elsevier: London, UK. (p131-146)
Additional resources on the risks for an immature CNS
Saunders, NR., Knott, GW., Dziegielewska, KM. (2000) Barriers in the immature brain. 20(1): 29-40. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/10690500
Sperber, EF., Viliskova, J., Germano, IM., Friedman, LK., Moshe, SL., (1999) Age-dependent vulnerability to seizures. Department of Neurology. 79: 161-169. Retrieved from http://europepmc.org/abstract/med/10514812
(8) Central Nervous System Depressants. Retrieved from http://medical-dictionary.thefreedictionary.com/Central+Nervous+System+Depressants
Leslie Moldenauer, CHNC, HHP, Certified Aromatherapist, has been studying natural living and holistic wellness for over 10 years. Leslie is a trusted resource that covers essential oil safety and encompasses all that natural living has to offer. She is passionate about providing education and tools to help others make decisions regarding safety above all things when utilizing aromatherapy in the home.