How aromatherapy can help kids breathe in some mental goodness 

Although scientific research has mostly focused on adults, experts agree that adding aromatherapy to a child’s routine can have powerfully positive effects on kids’ bodies and moods.

Aromatic plant and flower extracts and oils have been used to promote kids’ mental and physical health for thousands of years. In ancient India, oils were used during Ayurvedic baby massages to promote growth and wellness. Traditional Chinese medicine practitioners added them to carefully concocted herbal remedies to treat childhood illnesses. And Egyptian families used them in cooking to help with digestion, and even applied warm, oil-soaked papyrus over a child’s stomach to help with urinary issues.

Today, Americans spend billions of dollars annually on out-of-pocket complementary health approaches, according to the National Institutes of Health National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health. That includes aromatherapy, or the use of essential oils made from natural plant extracts to promote health and well-being.

“Aromatherapy has been around for centuries, but we’re just really now beginning to understand that it does have therapeutic benefits,” says physician Scott Schwantes, director of the pediatric pain program within the department of Pediatric Pain, Palliative and Integrative Medicine at Children’s Minnesota. And although most of the scientific research has focused on adults, more and more parents are discovering that kids might benefit from aromatherapy, too.

“There’s so much benefit our kids can get from nonpharmacologic approaches,” Schwantes says. “And smell really is unique amongst all of our senses—there is a special connection between emotions, memories, and smells.” 

Much has been made about supporting kids’ mental health and wellness after the stress of the pandemic, but experts agree that adding aromatherapy to a child’s routine can have powerfully positive effects on kids’ bodies and moods. (Still, Schwantes stresses that it’s not a replacement for medical care.)

“Aromatherapy is a wonderful, accessible experience that families can engage in that really just helps kids out,” he says. “It can also just be for the maintenance of health and well-being—and there’s a lot of power in that as well.”

Here’s how parents can safely incorporate aromatherapy into everyday activities to promote wellness in their children—and some fun DIY crafts to help.

The science of smell

Humans have relied on their noses for thousands of years to aid survival. Within the first few days of life, infants show a preference for the smell of their own mother and her milk. Our sense of smell helps us identify nutritious or spoiled food, alerts us to dangerous smells, and even plays a role in mate selection. Scientists believe the human nose can detect upward of one trillion smells, and something as seemingly simple as the smell of chocolate involves some 600 odor molecules.

Kids have an especially keen sense of smell—it matures as they grow, peaks in early childhood, and then gradually declines throughout adulthood. In fact, compared to sights and sounds, smell triggers our earliest and most emotionally powerful childhood memories.

Senses like sound, touch, and sight travel complex pathways to reach the brain. But what makes smell so unique, Schwantes says, is that when a scent molecule enters the nose, it goes to the brain’s olfactory bulb, where signals are transmitted directly to the limbic system. That houses structures like the amygdala and hippocampus, the brain areas associated with emotion and memory.

The research behind why aromatherapy seems to promote well-being is still limited. But experts cite a couple popular scientific theories on why smells affect the body and brain.

The “pharmacological hypothesis” asserts that odors directly interact with the autonomic and central nervous systems, which regulate everything from heart rate and digestion to speech and memory. For example, studies of lavender have been shown to affect the activity of cyclic andenosine monophosphate, a biochemical messenger in the body’s cells that can be associated with sedation.

Then there’s the “psychological hypothesis,” which you might recognize if the smell of baking pie or roasting chicken has ever blissfully transported you back to your grandparents’ house. This theory suggests that our response to smells is learned. In other words, we associate smells with emotional experiences, and eventually, those smells will evoke pleasant or unpleasant emotions tied to that experience. For example, one study showed that people who were exposed to pleasant smells, like baking cookies or roasting coffee, were more likely to help a stranger. Another study found that people exposed to an unpleasant odor had a lower tolerance for frustration.

The basics of aromatherapy for kids

Empirical evidence is still limited, but several scents in particular seem to promote well-being in children, says Vanessa Battista, a nurse practitioner with the Neuromuscular Program at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.

Lavender is a calming scent and can be used both to calm nervous anxiety as well as physically calming a rash or irritation. Mandarin and sweet orange are invigorating scents that can be used as a pick-me-up when kids are feeling tired or unfocused; they can also be used to help with relaxation. (Schwantes adds that lemon is another scent that can help with focus and fatigue.) Peppermint can be used for headaches and nausea.

While aromatherapy is generally safe for children, experts caution that essential oils are not regulated by the FDA. So Battista recommends that bottles be locked away from young children. Schwantes adds that he doesn’t recommend using essential oils with infants, simply because human scent plays a crucial role in parent-child bonding.

Lisa Squires, an integrative health program nurse coordinator at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, recommends that parents should dilute the oils based on a child’s age and weight, then start with a 24-hour patch test to make sure the kid doesn’t have an adverse reaction. Children should never ingest the oils.

Parents should also strive to minimize the environmental impact of aromatherapy, since essential oil production can mean high carbon emissions from transportation, energy use to power greenhouses, water-intensive distillation methods, potential chemical runoff from farming, and overharvesting. Reduce your footprint by making your oils last longer to prevent waste—store bottles in a dry place away from sunlight to prevent oxidation, and screw caps on tightly to reduce evaporation.

DIY aromatherapy crafts

“Aromatherapy can be really fun, but not all children will appreciate it,” Battista says. “[Kids with] very sensitive senses of smell and taste and touch can become easily overwhelmed by these scents,” so start small to see what kids like. (Squires says lavender and mandarin are good beginner scents.)

These crafty ideas can get you started—just reapply the oils every few days based on your child’s scent preference.

Want kids to calm down (or sleep?) Make this lavender-scented sock buddy.
• Grab an old pair of crew socks.
• Stuff about two-thirds of the foot portion with cotton or cloth scraps to form the “body,” and tie it in place with a piece of yarn.
• Stuff the remaining third of the foot portion and tie it with another piece of yarn to create the head.
• Cut the remaining top of the sock down the middle, stopping at the top of the head, to form floppy bunny ears.
• Decorate your bunny with fabric markers.
• Dab on some lavender oil so kids can give it a squeeze or keep it on their nightstand.

Want kids to focus or relax? Make this mandarin-scented ‘dough.’
• In a saucepan, combine 1 cup flour, 1 cup warm water, 1/3 cup salt, 1 tablespoon olive oil, 1.5 teaspoons tartar, and a few drops of food coloring (optional).
• Heat on medium-low until it thickens, then remove from heat and let it cool.
• Knead a few drops of mandarin essential oil into the dough until it’s smooth.
• Seal it for freshness. Also, it might smell good enough to eat, so remind kids that it’s not food!

(Bonus: Manipulating dough with their hands is a great sensory activity that helps kids get out excess energy and improve concentration. Here are more sensory crafts to try.)

Want to help a kid’s stress headache? Make some peppermint puffy paint.
• In a bowl, combine about 3/8 cup white glue, 3/4 cup unscented shaving cream, a few drops of food coloring, and peppermint essential oil.
• Add 1/4 cup flour and mix well.
• Pour the puffy paint into plastic squeeze bottles, or spoon it into a plastic baggie and snip off the corner off.

Want to get the benefits without the crafts? Improvise!
Swhwantes says aromatherapy can be as simple as putting a couple dabs of oil on a cotton ball and placing it near the child, or dipping the end of a hoodie string in oil so a kid can wear the scent all day.

“Not everybody has access to a massage therapist or an acupuncturist,” he says. “But just about anybody can get access to good essential oils.”

Editor's note: This story originally published on June 7, 2021. It has been updated.

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