This question comes up on a daily basis in my practice and online world of fragrant friends. My first response is an emphatic NO.
However, aromatherapy is a holistic modality and we explore each client’s goals and needs on a case-by-case basis. Even the youngest of my clients deserves my full attention and expertise gained from my training and years of clinical experience. This is the list that runs through my mind when I am working with a young child:
In her book Hydrosols: The Next Aromatherapy (pg 179), Suzanne Catty reminds us that children in the first three years of age may perceive odors in sound, taste, physical sensation, and sight described as a very intense experience. Essential oils may be wholly unpleasant for some children based on aroma alone and may not be a good fit. Additionally, some theorize that if a newborn can find his mother’s nipple on scent alone, interfering with his sense of smell could be detrimental to breastfeeding.
Essential oils pass through the liver as part of metabolism when applied to the skin or via inhalation. Prior to full development around age 15 or 16 the liver has a decreased capacity to metabolize, detoxify, and excrete chemicals in the bloodstream. Combined with the knowledge that adults have liver toxicity issues when an aromatherapy dose goes beyond therapeutic levels or when used in combination with other agents such as acetaminophen this is an area to proceed with caution.
No two cases are the same and frankly another therapy or approach may be more appropriate for the client than aromatherapy. If I have two mothers presenting with mastitis and one of them has developed an antibiotic-resistant infection I am most likely to recommend a robust treatment plan to the mother with the out-of-control infection and refer the other mother out to a local herbalist or naturopath. I’m also more likely to offer a treatment plan for a colicky baby than a healthy baby with an over-tired mother, but the over-tired mother will get a treatment plan instead!
Babies smell amazing
Honestly, if we could figure out a way to bottle eau de enfant everyone would be buying a bottle of the stuff! Babies don’t need to smell like anything else, that’s why good detergents don’t have perfumes added to them and a good bubble bath is a squeeze of castile soap made from olive oil. Don’t perfume infants and toddlers for the sake of perfuming them, be it with natural products like essential oils or with synthetic endocrine-disrupting products.
Those brilliant aromatic waters achieved in steam distillation make up a large part of aromatherapy practices that the general public doesn’t always see. Many hydrosols are a much safer option for young children because they are less concentrated in both aroma and chemistry. A teaspoon of Lavender or Chamomile hydrosol in the bath will comfort a sick child or a child that is bouncing off the walls because the grandparents indulged his sweet-tooth.
The research suggests a number of herbs are a safer bet for young children in comparison to essential oils. Take peppermint for example – the essential oil of peppermint is known to stop the breathing in children under five and has neurological implications that have led to seizures; on the flip side the herbal form, dried peppermint leaves, can be brewed into a weak tea and offered in the bath to soothe a fever in an older child.
Your family’s wellness path and aromatherapy
Parents may not realize that essential oils are 100 times concentrate compared to the plants they originate from. What is natural isn’t always harmless and this rings especially true for babies and young children. National and International safety guidelines exist for this special population but aren’t easy to find when wading through marketing articles trying to sell you a product that may or may not be appropriate for your family.
Sit down with a qualified aromatherapist and discuss the benefits and potentially life-threatening hazards of using essential oils on a small child, and make an educated decision about what is best for your family. Sometimes that means I refer a family out to a local herbalist, homeopath, osteopath, or naturopath. And that’s totally okay to choose a different path of wellness for you and yours.
Additionally, keep in mind that some of the out-dated books at the library will have recipes that do not reflect current known safety standards regarding the use of essential oils on young children. I have yet to find a title that is updated on safety and would recommend parents cross-reference any essential oil recommendations in books older than 18 months with current research prior to considering it for use on a child.
Keep essential oils out of reach of pets and children
I can’t stress this caution enough! Essential oil poisonings can kill children and pets. These are not toys or teething tools, they are highly concentrated plant materials that can be dangerous and lethal in tiny hands.
In the event of an essential oil poisoning call Poison Control immediately. The American Association of Poison Control Centers hotline is available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week at 1-800-222-1222. Poison Control operators assist families with thousands of essential oil poisonings every year and are well equipped to advise you on necessary actions to take after a poisoning.
“I have yet to find a title that is updated on safety.” I can name two. Essential Oil Safety, 2nd Edition by TIsserand & Young (2014) and The Complete Guide to Aromatherapy & Essential Oils for Everyday Welleness by Purchon and Cantele (2014).
Good references, Lora! I’m still on the lookout for a book for parents with no aromatic chemistry training.
Do you have more info or a citation on the liver toxicity? I would like to do more research on that. Thanks! Cindy
Here’s some general information on pediatric liver development and hepatotoxicity: http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/113/Supplement_3/1097
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