The value of massage with aromatic oils during childbirth has been known for many hundreds of years, and with the current trend away from 'hi-tech' hospital deliveries and towards a more gentle and natural way of giving birth, women are once again exploring ways in which essential oils can help them at this important point in their life.

Nicholas Culpeper in his 'Directory for Midwives' wrote 'If travail be hard, annoint the belly and sides with oyl of sweet almonds, lillies and sweet wine' and almond oil is still the most commonly used base (or carrier) oil for massage. Lillies are not used in aromatherapy (although they are frequently referred to in herbals and other sources) but there are a number of essential oils which can be of great help during childbirth, since they strengthen and deepen contractions while at the same time having an analgesic effect. The two which seem to be the greatest help are Jasmine and Lavender. Sage 'is sometimes recommended, but some women find its action too powerful, and the resultant contractions rather hectic.

Jean Valnet also mentions Clove. Both Lavender and Jasmine are well-tried and known to be genuinely useful. Either of these oils can be gently rubbed into the tummy and/or lower back from the beginning of labour and indeed can be used for a few days before the expected time of birth as a preparation. Whether to massage the back, the tummy or both will depend on what position the woman prefers and finds comfortable for her labour.

Some natural midwives will be able to do this, but it would generally be wiser to have somebody else ready to carry out the massage, or take over from the midwife when necessary. The baby's father might like to do this as a very practical way to help with the birth, or a close woman friend of the mother may offer her support. It needs to be decided well in advance who is going to do the massaging, so that they know exactly what to do and what is expected of them. It is by no means necessary to have a specialist training in massage, but the volunteer should be shown how to apply oil in long smooth movements, preferably with a fairly firm pressure. Small circular movements on the lower back are often very comforting, and at all times the person carrying out the massage must be guided by the mother as to what kind of movement and what degree of pressure she finds most helpful.

Gentle massage can be started in the week before the baby is due, but should not be tried much earlier than this, as there is some risk of triggering contractions and so inducing an early birth. This is even more important to observe if the woman has given birth prematurely in an earlier pregnancy. Warm baths with up to 6 drops of Jasmine or Lavender oil added can be taken during the last week of pregnancy, and if at all possible, at the onset of labour. This will help to relax the woman and prepare the uterine muscles for the hard work ahead.

Lavender and Jasmine each offer slightly different advantages, although there is an overlap in their properties. Although both are analgesic, Jasmine is somewhat more effective at strengthening contractions, and so shortening labour, but some people find its heavy odour cloying during delivery, when the room will probably be kept fairly warm, and the mother herself feeling hot and sweaty from the efforts of her labour. The clean, fresh aroma of Lavender might be more acceptable and can be used in several other ways as well as massage. A few drops mixed in cool water will make a very refreshing mixture with which to sponge the mother's face, and possibly her body if she is feeling very hot. A few drops on a lightbulb or in a purpose-made essential oil burner, or made into an air spray will cleanse and freshen the air of the room in which the baby is to be born.

Jasmine should be used immediately after the baby's birth, to help expel the afterbirth quickly and cleanly. It will also help to tone the uterine muscles and help them return faster to their pre-pregnancy condition. Jasmine is also a very good anti depressant, and of great help to any woman who suffers from post-natal depression. It also has the reputation of promoting the flow of breast-milk, but this is not entirely substantiated. Oil ol Fennel, fennel tea and preparations of dill-seed (a close relative of fennel) have been well tried for hundreds of years and are known to be effective.

These oils which are so helpful during labour must be avoided in the first few months of pregnancy, because they can trigger contractions and therefore involve some risk of miscarriage.

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