We all want the best for our children. With the arrival of a new baby, parents often renew their commitment to proper nutrition, eliminating harmful chemicals, and other measures to be as healthy as possible. Essential oils can give us natural alternatives for many synthetic products, as well as support for our bodily systems in their normal functions. Moms already know they have to be careful about taking medications when breastfeeding, but what about using essential oils?
"Likely exposure in breast milk to most essential oil constituents is less than 1% of the maternal dose. This suggests that no particular caution is needed, except possibly from oral doses." ~Essential Oil Safety
Some sources, including the one quoted above, advise against using certain essential oils while breastfeeding, but it's lumped in with essential oil use during pregnancy, when the baby's development could be affected. Breastfeeding is not the same as pregnancy! I haven't found any evidence that a particular essential oil would not be safe for use during breastfeeding, as long as it is generally considered safe when not breastfeeding.
The U.S. essential oil industry is only lightly regulated, though, so there is wide variation in quality. When choosing an essential oil brand, you need to ask questions — lots of them!
How was the plant grown, and how was the essential oil distilled? If the growers used chemical fertilizers or pesticides, there may be residues on or in the plant at harvest time, which will wind up in the essential oil. Some companies also use harmful chemicals in the distillation process. Since essential oils are highly concentrated, chemical residues will be highly concentrated, as well. That pretty much defeats the purpose of using natural products!
What is the chemotype (botanical name) of the plant? When was the plant harvested? What parts of the plant were used to produce the essential oil? All of these affect what therapeutic qualities the essential oil will possess. If a thyme plant is harvested at the wrong time of year, for example, its essential oil will have higher levels of carvacrol, a skin irritant. Lavandula x intermedia (lavandin) is commonly sold as lavender essential oil, but its composition is significantly different than Lavandula angustifolia, and lavandin will not have the same effects as true lavender. Likewise, essential oil distilled from leaves and stems of a plant will have different attributes and effects than oil that comes from the flowers only.
What kind of tests does the company do to ensure purity and potency? Who evaluates the tests? More and more essential oil companies are conducting gas chromatography and mass spectrometry (GC/MS) tests, and some even make copies of the tests publicly available. This is often just smoke and mirrors, though; companies know the average consumer has no idea what to look for — most of us aren't chemists. In addition, synthetic technology is clever enough to appear natural in the raw data of GC/MS tests, so the qualifications of the person evaluating the results can make a huge difference. And is he/she affiliated with the essential oil company, or an independent third party? In the end, even when an essential oil "passes" GC/MS testing additional tests are necessary to ensure it is free of synthetics or other adulteration.
In this video, Dr. Robert Pappas of Essential Oil University explains various testing methods used to ensure an essential oil is natural and has the right chemistry to achieve the desired effects.
Once you've found a brand you trust, there are essential oils that can be helpful for breastfeeding in particular. Throughout history, fennel has been recognized as a galactagogue, and some moms have seen similar effects with basil essential oil. Dilute either fennel or basil oil in a carrier oil and apply to the breast tissue, avoiding the nipple, several times each day, to support the natural process of making milk. Fennel also relieves occasional digestive troubles; as a tiny amount transfers into your milk, it will soothe your baby's tummy, as well. Bonus! If used too much, however, fennel can begin to have the opposite effect, decreasing milk supply. For best results, use fennel for up to 10 days, then take a break for the same amount of time.
Essential oils can't fix breastfeeding problems. Work with a lactation consultant to troubleshoot supply issues, tongue ties, latch problems, and your baby's digestive function before attempting any oil protocols.
Finally, be aware that about one-third of women experience a decrease in milk supply when using peppermint essential oil.
"With some moms, peppermint has no effect, and for others just smelling it will decrease their milk supply ... just experiment and see how your body responds." ~Essential Oils for Pregnancy, Birth & Babies
The good news is that if your supply is adversely affected by an essential oil, discontinuing use of that oil and nursing on demand will allow your supply to quickly rebound.
Essential oils can be a wonderful tool and blessing for any family, whether or not you are currently breastfeeding. Make sure to do your research before selecting a brand, and select trustworthy advisors and resources for protocols, as well. Then take control of your family's health!
Joan's journey to a more natural lifestyle began 6 years ago when she was pregnant with her first child. That interest developed into a passion, which she now shares with others via the Play the Grace Notes community and by teaching wellness classes in the St. Louis area. To learn more about essential oils or get support on your journey to natural health, whether you're only beginning or have been on the path for a while, visit www.playthegracenotes.com.