A Tale of Two Noses — Smells In Labor


Any pregnant woman who experiences morning sickness can tell you how offensive certain smells are. Just imagining them can cause a gag reflex. This is due to our heightened hormones and olfactory responses, most likely to help us avoid any spoiled food or anything dangerous to our health. It can be such a strong response that it is almost as if we have two noses — one pre-pregnancy and one during pregnancy. I still cannot drive past a popular local bbq restaurant without remembering the stomach curdling response to the food they cooked.

Fast forward to labor and you will find that our hormones can play even more tricks on us. While we avoided certain scents and navigated around certain foods during pregnancy, in labor a woman can find that the most innocent of scents can turn her green with nausea. I will list a few scenarios I have seen:

  • A husband kindly skips bringing food into the room of his laboring wife and mixes a protein shake instead. He drinks it, then comes back to her side and she has an almost violent reaction to the miniscule amount of shake she can smell on his hands and breath.
  • A client begs us to take the infant warmer station out in the hallway because the smell of it heating up sickens her.
  • A client tries to brush her teeth for a quick pick me up and finds her favorite toothpaste is offensive.
  • A nursing student has been allowed in for observation of a birth but neglected to heed the instructions to not wear any body spray. She is swapped out for another student and doesn’t get to see the birth.
  • The coffee I need in the middle of the night must be slurped hurriedly down in the family room and mouthwash used.
  • A small battery operated handheld fan smells too much of plastic and has to be put away.
  • Favorite essential oils are now intolerable.

These are just a few of the scenarios I have seen while a woman is laboring. Not all women will be bothered by smells while they are in labor but it’s best to be aware of the potential and proceed with caution. In the childbirth class I teach I touch on the subject and I pass around a few different essential oils for everyone to sniff. Almost everyone loves lavender. I remind them that it may smell delicious right now to them but to be aware that can change in a moment.

Here are some tips if you plan to be in the room with a laboring woman:

  • Be sure that any scent can be removed from the room. If you are bringing essential oils for aromatherapy it is best to put them on a cotton ball or something similar and test it out first. It is usually not a good idea to place any type of scented lotion, oil, or spray directly on a woman in labor or on her clothes or bedding.
  • Even if the laboring mama assures you that food won’t bother her it may be best to eat anything warm and delicious outside of her sight and nose. When choosing your food it is best to go bland for this experience — skip the garlic hummus or a sandwich covered in onions.
  • Have a few types of ways to control breath. I keep a toothbrush & toothpaste with me but if peppermint is bothering my client then I will go to a different flavored gum or hard candy. Drinking lots of water will keep your mouth fresh and reduce any bacteria that can cause bad breath.
  • Keep all deodorants, body sprays, colognes, perfumes, even aftershave to a minimum or skip it altogether. In my doula bag I keep a very plain baking soda deodorant for application.
  • LED candles create a lovely atmosphere but unscented ones are probably safest.
  • The fancy rice pack with aromatherapy in it might be better saved for after the birth. Use plain uncooked rice in a new sock or cover for the actual labor.

Despite the above warnings, don’t completely rule out trying aromatherapy. Some essential oils, dried herbs, lotions, candles, and more can create a calming environment, perk up a tired mama, and even mask other offensive smells. Simply start out slow and make sure it can be removed if it causes problems. Look forward to the fact that your heightened sense of smell will make you dizzy with love and bonding when you sniff your newborn baby.

Did any scents or smells bother you in pregnancy or labor?

All Rights Reserved, 2015, Knoxville Doula, Kimberly Sebeck



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