In recent years, more and more people have started using essential oils for aromatherapy or as a first step in treating things like migraines before turning to traditional medications for relief. This might seem like a harmless solution for a nursing mom with a pounding headache, but are essential oils safe while breastfeeding?
Lactation consultant Tera Hamann, BSN, IBCLC, tells Romper that research is important before using essential oils in any way while breastfeeding because there are a lot of unknowns and misinformation surrounding them. "Just because something is natural, smells nice, and can be used in cooking does not mean the concentrated volatile compounds — the essential oils — are benign when slathered on the skin or breathed into the lungs," lactation consultant Lynette Hafken, MA, IBCLC, tells Romper.
Nursing moms are tasked with monitoring everything that goes into their body because it can be passed to their baby. But monitoring essential oils can be tricky, because they're not regulated by the FDA, as Jody Segrave-Daly, RN, IBCLC, tells Romper. "There is no way of knowing [if] what is in the bottle is indeed valid," she warns.
Hamann says "[essential oils] can be harmful to babies, so it’s important to consider that with what you are using and where you are putting it." As with almost any remedy, what's safe for an adult (be it dosage or exposure) is rarely safe for an infant. For example, "eucalyptus and peppermint contain compounds called phenol that can irritate the respiratory tract if inhaled, particularly in babies."
It's not just breathing in the oils that can do harm, Hafken says. "Essential oils commonly used on the skin such as camphor and tea tree oil are toxic to humans if ingested; if a breastfeeding mother rubs some on her skin and then touches her nipples or uses a finger to unlatch her baby, some could be swallowed." Likewise, Hamann urges nursing moms to stay away from peppermint oil because "topically and orally it has been known to decrease milk supply."
New moms who use essential oils in an attempt to increase supply will likely face disappointment and possibly even health issues. Nursing moms get flooded with information about how oils can help them naturally increase milk supply, but a lot of it ends up being incorrect. In fact, Segrave-Daly says that in 2018, the Endocrine Society issued a warning regarding compounds in lavender and tea tree oil, both commonly marketed to nursing moms, because they "appear to be hormone disruptors — the last thing a lactating person needs." She also points out that moms who "[waste] time waiting for oils to 'work'" end up taking longer to reach out to a "lactation [or] medical professional who can provide potential solutions for low milk supply."
The biggest issue that all three lactation experts agree on is the amount of misinformation and lack of quality research on essential oils in general, let alone involving nursing moms. Segrave-Daly urges nursing women to err on the side of caution and "seek medical care first, instead of listening to a social media mommy group or someone who is selling essential oils, because your licensed health professionals know your personal health history and are accountable for the treatment they prescribe."
Lynnette Hafken, MA, IBCLC
Tera Hamann, BSN, RN, IBCLC
Jody Segrave-Daly, MS, RN, IBCLC