Aromatherapy with Children: What's the Science?

I’m a little obsessed with scent (my hunt for the right deodorant spanned almost a decade), so I’ve always been intrigued by aromatherapy. We all know how pleasant scents can unleash happy memories, while unpleasant ones can leave us irritable or nauseous - but is that all there is to aromatherapy, or does it go deeper? Well, I’ve taken a look at the studies and information available on the subject, and here’s what we know:

How it Works

Aromatherapy uses essential oils extracted from plants (the ‘essential’ refers to the oil being ‘essence’ of the plant), and works in a few different ways. 

Of course, one of these is through our noses: those lovely, aromatic particles travel up our noses and come into contact with olfactory cells. These cells produce nerve impulses which travel to the limbic system and hypothalamus, which, in turn, produce serotonin (which stabilises mood, aids digestion and allows us to feel pleasure) and endorphins (which reduce pain and increase feelings of happiness).

The antibacterial, antiviral and anti-inflammatory properties of some essential oils can also be put to good use when inhaled or diluted and applied topically (to the skin). Essential oils are made up of tiny molecules which are able to penetrate to subcutaneous tissue and get to work in areas of your body other than the nose.

Are the Benefits of Aromatherapy Scientifically Proven?

Despite the fact that aromatherapy has been used in holistic medicine for thousands of years, scientific research on its efficacy is lacking. This doesn’t mean that aromatherapy doesn’t work, simply that there have not been enough studies to either prove or disprove anything.

Why is this?

There are a number of reasons, including the fact that essential oils are not regulated (so can vary wildly in quality) and a lack of funding. A big difficulty for researchers is the near-inability to create a control group - that is, a group of people being given a placebo in order to account for variables - as aromatherapy smells, so it’s pretty obvious who’s in which group when half of you smell like a lavender field.

To combat this, scientists have conducted experiments comparing essential oils and synthetic scented oils. In these trials, the essential oils have fared much better, but it’s hard to know whether the ingredients in the fake oils were to blame for the difference, or whether essential oils really are that effective.

Despite this, a number of studies using essential oils to treat people with dementia and Alzheimer's have provided interesting and grounded results, and some essential oils have been tested on animals.

So what do we know?

Studies on individual oils have had promising results. One study, which used lemon balm oil as a complimentary medicine for people living with severe dementia, found that the treatment had a large positive impact on their wellbeing and quality of life. Another found that tea tree oil was effective at treating acne, and patients with alopecia saw improvements after researchers treated them with thyme, rosemary, lavender and cedarwood oil.

Other studies have found that citrus oils can inhibit bacterial growth and reduce inflammation in mice, and that inhaling rosemary oil significantly increased their locomotor activity.

So, while there is still a lot of research to be done, studies have proven the efficacy of a number of oils in certain situations.

How can I use essential oils safely with my children?

As you may already know, essential oils are strong, so it’s important you keep them safely out of reach of children. This doesn’t, however, mean that aromatherapy cannot be experienced by your little ones. Here are a few things to consider when using aromatherapy with children:

  • Only use pure essential oils.
    As we mentioned before, essential oils are not regulated the same way medicine or food is. Because of this, some cheaper oils contain extra ingredients that can cause irritation in your little ones, such as alcohol.
  • Use a proper diffuser.
    If you are diffusing your oils, make sure you use a diffuser designed for use with essential oils - otherwise, the materials inside the diffuser could be damaged by the oils and release some nasty smoke.
  • Ventilate.
    You don’t want your little one breathing in too much of the oil at once, so always ensure you are using aromatherapy in a well-ventilated space with lots of fresh air.
  • For topical use, dilute!
    If you are applying essential oils to your little one’s skin, remember to dilute the oils with a carrier oil or lotion. The essential oil should only make up around 0.25% to 2.5% of the solution.
  • Watch out for allergies.
    Essential oils can cause allergic reactions, so start by only using a small amount as a test, then wait 72 hours before continuing (this is the length of time it can take for some skin allergies to show up).
  • Avoid little hands.
    Try to avoid getting any oils on your little one’s hands - you don’t want them accidentally rubbing tea tree oil into their eyes or getting it in their mouth!

Where do I start!?

There are so many essential oils out there, so it can be hard to know where to start! Here are a few oils perfect for trying with children.

  • Lavender
Lavender is a great first essential oil, as children tend to like the smell of it! It has wonderful calming effects, and can be great for helping your little one sleep. It can also be used for reducing the symptoms of allergies, such as itching or swelling. 
  • Eucalyptus Radiata
    Eucalyptus is wonderful for congestion - my parents brought it out whenever I had a cold as a child! Do note, Eucalyptus radiata is not the same as Eucalyptus globulus, which should be avoided for use with children under 2.
  • Chamomile
    Like lavender, chamomile is a lovely, soothing oil, perfect for helping little ones doze off. It’s also been shown to help anxiety and depression, so can be helpful for fussing babies.
  • Tea tree
    The antimicrobial and disinfectant properties of tea tree oil means it can be perfect for little ones with diaper rash. It’s also great at staving off head lice, which is very handy when your little ones are school-age!
  • Cedarwood
    Cedarwood has many uses: it’s lovely on the skin (when diluted properly!), can support respiratory function, and is believed to have a calming effect: great for anxious little ones.
  • Lemon
    Refreshing, energising and mood-uplifting, this is a great one for post-nap grouches!

So, whether you’re spritzing, diffusing, giving a little foot massage or using it in scented play-dough (recipe here!), aromatherapy can help to calm, uplift and soothe anxieties in your little one.


Content Creator at MEplace
next article