Small Doses: Aromatherapy for Children

Life Span

By Karrie Osborn

Originally published in Massage & Bodywork magazine, April/May 2004.

For both parent and practitioner, there’s often no greater frustration than being unable to soothe a child’s pain, especially an infant. A 1-year-old child’s cries tell us so much, and yet so little. Body language is often the biggest clue as to what ails him. And while Tiffany Field, a researcher at Miami’s Touch Research Institute, and others have scientifically proven that massage can provide great comfort to a young child, touch can be an even stronger therapeutic tool when combined with aromatherapy.

A Therapeutic Dichotomy

There is a dichotic nature inherent in aromatherapy. It is gentle, yet powerful; subtle, yet intense. There are essential oils strong enough to cause miscarriage, but there also are oils safe enough to use with the youngest client. The key is knowing how to best utilize nature’s gifts to provide the most effective therapeutic collaboration possible.

Aromatherapy is an ancient practice that can be found in the earliest Egyptian, Greek, and Roman traditions. Both China and India have strong, rich, and lasting traditions of plant medicine, dating back to 2000 B.C.1 And up until the 21st century, thyme and rosemary were burned by many Western hospitals as a means of medically disinfecting the air.

The use of essential oils extracted from herbs, flowers, and plants is meant to improve health and well-being. They can be sedating or stimulating, antibacterial or antispasmodic, and can work on everything from arthritis to whooping cough. There are approximately 3,000 oils found globally, 300 to 400 of which are primarily used and can be dispensed in a variety of ways, including being added to inhalations, baths, massage oils and lotions, compresses, diffusers, foot baths, humidifiers, and room sprays.2,3

The Smell of Research

Like so many complementary therapies, the efficacy of aromatherapy has largely been proven in the anecdotal arena. But more scientific investigations are under way.

One such study is being conducted at the Children’s Hospital of New York, where aromatherapy has already been used to relieve childrens’ anxiety and nausea caused by stem cell and bone marrow transplants and their subsequent treatments. Bergamot is the essential oil being tested via an aromatherapy diffuser. This study is still in the earliest stages of investigation.4

Other studies are looking at aromatherapy as a psychologically therapeutic tool. One of those research efforts is a collaboration between the Atlantic Institute of Aromatherapy and the University of South Florida to evaluate the psychosensory benefits of aromatherapy.5 This study is evaluating the effectiveness of several essential oil blends on children with various disorders, including autism, attention deficit disorder, and sensory defensiveness. Aspects of the research will focus on how aromatherapy might affect a child’s ability to relax, communicate, and concentrate. Several case studies on the Atlantic Institute’s website provide interesting confirmation of a definite link between olfactory sensation and behavior modification.6

Aromatherapy Massage

If you’re considering adding aromatherapy to your toolbox for either children or adults, don’t tread lightly. Incorporating aromatherapy into your massage sessions is a simple venture; it’s understanding the potency and nature of the essential oils that requires more care.

The benefits derived from aromatherapy during a massage come in part from the contact the essential oil has on the skin, but even more so from the inhalation and absorption through the mucosa of the nose and mouth. “The volatile molecules of the essential oils lock onto receptor cells at the back of the nose,” aromatherapist Danila Mansfield says. “An electrochemical message is sent to the limbic system in the brain. The limbic system appears to trigger memory and emotional responses, which cause messages to be sent to other parts of the brain and body. In this way, the production of euphoric, relaxing, sedative, or stimulating neurochemicals is stimulated.”7

Lavender is often the first oil thought of when considering aromatherapy because of its calming effect, gentle nature, and widespread acceptance. It is said to be especially useful for children, namely because of those qualities. This is a simple aromatic to add to a carrier oil, such as almond oil. Mineral-based baby oils are not recommended for infant massage because of their ability to block pores.8

Aromatherapy massage doesn’t differ in practice from your typical massage protocol: Work toward the heart, listen to the client (i.e., in this case, if the child is fretful and not enjoying the work, stop), watch body language, and keep the environment warm and peaceful. When working with children, 10 to 15 minutes may well be the only time they will allocate you for the massage as patience dwindles and boredom sets in. Hence, you’ll want to think through your routine and see how you’ll refine it for a child.

Children Specifically

Great care must be taken when utilizing aromatherapy with children, says Kathi Keville and Mindy Green, authors of Aromatherapy: A Complete Guide to the Healing Art. The most important precaution is how much essential oil to use. They recommend using one-third to one-half the adult dose when administering to a child.9 Renowned aromatherapy author and educator Valerie Worwood breaks it down this way: Up to 1 drop of essential oil for infants 6 months and younger; 1 to 2 drops for children 6 to 12 months; and 1 to 4 drops for children 1 to 4 years old.10 Worwood recommends those doses be added to 1 ounce of carrier oil.

David Schiller, a director at the International Aromatherapy and Herb Association, concurs less is better when offering aromatherapy to a child. Even though the experts say essential oils can be used carefully with newborns, Schiller says he wouldn’t start administering to a child younger than 6 months old.

Even then, he says, “I recommend working with a limited number of very mild, basic oils.” Mandarin, tangerine, neroli, and lavender head that list, with something like sandalwood or rose oil being added as the child gets older. “You just don’t want anything very potent.” Stronger oils can irritate the skin and even cause a nervous reaction, Schiller says.

“Children are very fragile. Even an oil like eucalyptus I would avoid unless adding it to a mist, and then, using only a small amount.” The main thing is being careful not to overwhelm the child’s nervous system. “You have to be very cautious and gentle with a child. It’s always better to use a little less than overuse,” he says.

Mist sprays are something Schiller likes using with children, because of their ease and dispersement qualities. A variety of sprays can be created to soothe stuffy noses and chest coughs and open breathing passages.

Schiller, an aromatherapy instructor since 1986, says the main benefits of essential oils on children are to calm and relax them. “It can even help them get a better night’s sleep,” he says. “Some children have very bad dreams and aromatherapy can be used effectively for that purpose.”

There are some contraindications with children and essential oils, Schiller says. “I would abstain from the oils that tend to have a greater reaction, such as cedarwood or oregano oil. Even pine oil, that would be excellent for adults, I would refrain from using with children.”

Like most experts, Schiller says it’s important to dilute the oils. A good massage blend would be 1 drop of lavender oil to 2 teaspoons of carrier oil.

Keville and Green offer the following specific blends for children:
• Chamomile, melissa, and fennel (either as a massage oil or a tea) soothe upset stomachs and their onset symptoms, including nervousness, anxiety, and overexciteability. The same combination can be used for colic, gas pain, and nausea.
• Lavender and chamomile in the tub before bedtime can wash away the woes of the day and relax a cranky, overexerted child before sleep. Lavender in a cool compress can also ease headaches and insomnia, and in a warm neck wrap can attack swollen glands.
• Chamomile as a tea, combined with clove oil rubbed over the gums, can soothe a child’s teething pain.11

The main thing to remember when applying aromatherapy to a child, or any client for that matter, is not to be cavalier with a little knowledge and to always use common sense. “Go simple,” Schiller says. “If you go with common sense and simplicity, you’ll be fine. Children are not the ones to experiment with.”