Have you ever had that experience where you catch a brief smell of something and suddenly found yourself transported back to some childhood memory? 

Did you know that smell has the special ability to not only trigger memory but also to affect your body chemistry and your emotions? 

I’m going to tell you how you can use this unique power of smell to your advantage by using essential oils during labor and birth.

Our sense of smell is like a super power that can link you to another place and time.  This is because inside your nose there are receptors called olfactory bulbs that detect smell and connect to the part of your brain that accesses MEMORY and EMOTION. Without getting all technical the olfactory bulbs connect directly to the hypothalamus– the master gland at the center of what’s known as the LIMBIC SYSTEM, which in turn is part of the primal brain. When we smell our olfactory bulbs are detecting chemical molecules in the environment. Some of these molecules can create physiological changes in the body and, via the Limbic System, influence behavior, memory and emotions.

Smell MemoryYou can use this power of smell to create a memory association that will help trigger a relaxed state during labor. Whilst you can do this with any fragrance, choosing essential oils to create your Smell Memory can have additional benefits such as positively influencing your birthing hormones, promoting calm and relieving pain.

How to create a Smell Memory

STEP 1: Choose an essential oil or blend that smells good to you.

Essential oils contain plant-derived chemical compounds that have the ability to create physiological changes. This could be that they have a hormone-like effect or analgesic (pain relieving) properties due to their chemical structure. So they don’t just smell good, they are therapeutic**.

There are certain oils recommended because of the various effect they have on labor. But unless you’re a doula or midwife or have a particular interest in aromatherapy you don’t need to complicate things by going into a great deal of depth here. If it smells good to you then you’re more likely to keep using it then if you don’t like the smell but think you should be using it because it stimulates contractions. This is especially so during labor when your sense of smell is going to be enhanced.

Choose your essential oil according to what smells good to you

Each of the following essential oils has a known positive effect during birth. These are my favorites and, because of their effect on female hormones and for promoting calm, are also wonderful postnatal and for a smooth menstrual cycle.

You can blend up to three different oils.


  • Clary Sage*: My favorite. Stimulates uterus to contract. Euphoric.
  • Geranium: Really good for emotional extremes. Perineum care.
  • Rose*: The Queen of oils, very feminine. Expensive!
  • Jasmine*: Particularly good for second stage.


  • Sandalwood/Frankincense: Meditative
  • Lavender: Good for early first stage fear. Pain relief.
  • Neroli: Fear & Anxiety
  • German Chamomile:  Hormone-like effect.

*Because of the hormonal effect on the uterus there is controversy regarding the use of these essential oils during pregnancy.  When essential oils are used correctly the risks are very slight because of the low dosage involved. If you prefer to err on the side of caution start introducing these from 32 weeks.

**Quality is pretty important when choosing your essential oil; higher-grade oils have greater therapeutic properties. However, for the beginner as long as the Botanical name is listed with the common name (eg. Lavender, Lavendula officinalis) it should be ok.

STEP TWO: Use your special blend consistently throughout your pregnancy during times of RELAXATION.

For example you could add your essential oil to an oil burner whilst listening to Birth Hypnosis or other meditation track, or add a few drops of your chosen oil to a bath and drift away for 20 minutes. Or you could make a massage oil blend and create a weekly, intimate massage time with your partner.

The more you use your signature scent at times of deep relaxation, the more your limbic system will develop the brain pathways that associate that smell with being deeply relaxed on a physiological and psychological level.

Then when you use your signature scent during labor, via the super power of the limbic system to trigger memory and emotion, your body will automatically respond to this smell with the physiological reaction of deep relaxation.

And deep relaxation is the best way for birth to proceed efficiently, safely and naturally.

 STEP THREE: Practice relaxation at least 20 minutes per day.

To get the most out of this memory association technique you should aim for 20 minutes relaxation time every day. I know that might seem unachievable for some but if you can’t manage 20 minutes down time every day, or at least every other day, especially in late pregnancy then you are definitely running on too much stress and adrenaline and this can create problems shifting gears into the hormones needed to birth.

STEP FOUR: Use your special blend during labor.

The final step is to use your special smell during labor. Because of the relationship between smell and memory your brain will have developed pathways that associate your chosen smell with deep relaxation. During labor your body will automatically respond to this smell with the physiological and psychological reaction of deep relaxation.

Introducing essential oils into your daily routine and birth space is easy. Here are some suggestions:

  • Massage: Add 5 drops per 10ml of base oil. Massage into feet, lower abdomen and lower back.
  • Bath: Use 4-6 drops in the bath.
  • Shower:  Sprinkle 2-4 drops on shower wall and allow the steam will create an aromatic
  • Inhalation: Place 1-2 drops on a tissue or pillow. Tuck tissue into bra and the aroma will waft
  • Vaporiser: Add 6-8 drops in water in an oil burner or electric vaporiser.
  • Warm Compress: 1-2 drops in hot or cold water and use to soak a face cloth.
  • Room spritzer: Add about 1 drop of essential oil per 2ml of water (50ml: 20 drops). Use as a room spray or face mist. A great way to quickly change the sterile atmosphere of a hospital

Did you know that your body detects other peoples’ hormones via smell and because of this other peoples’ hormones can have a direct effect on you and your labor? This is important if you plan to birth in an adrenalized hospital environment: you can use smell to not only create a trigger for deep relaxation but to also minimize the effect of environmental stress hormones.


  • Your sense of smell is linked to the part of your brain associated with memory and emotion.
  • You can use smell to create a memory association linking the physical and psychological experience of deep relaxation with your chosen smell.
  •  Using this same smell during labor will then act on your brain pathways to trigger the physical and psychological reaction of deep relaxation.
  • Deep relaxation is the best way for labor to proceed efficiently, naturally and safely.

This is a powerful technique. I used smell memory association whilst I was studying with ‘memory-enhancing’ essential oils such as Rosemary and Basil and my recall of information in exams was brilliant. What a delicious way to enhance your birth experience!

Enjoy! x Peta

Goethe is reported to have peeked into the poet Schiller’s desk drawer only to find it filled with rotten apples.  Daring to inquire, Goethe learned that whenever Schiller was blocked, he simply opened the drawer, smelled its contents, and the flow of words returned.

-Naomi Epel, The Observation Deck

Peta-ElmerAbout the author…

Peta Elmer is a Traditional Chinese Medicine practitioner and Birth Educator with a passion for promoting trust and respect for the wisdom of women’s bodies.  She helps women learn to work with their body’s natural rhythms for maximum health, vitality, fertility, creativity and feminine power. She has a deep calling to birth work and her special mission is the message birth is meant to be a pleasurable and ecstatic experience. She believes a holistic Mind Body Spirit approach is key to preparing for the unfamiliar opening sensations of birth.  
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