The Sweet Science of Baby Smell

I’ve seen first-hand the immediate connection parents share with their newborns. The spark in their eyes when they hold their baby for the first time is undeniable. But have you ever wondered what makes this connection so instant and strong? Believe it or not, it has a lot to do with something we rarely talk about – the “new baby smell.”

The Unforgettable Aroma of Newborns

Imagine walking into a room with a newborn. What’s the first thing you notice? Besides the adorable little bundle of joy, of course! It’s a distinctive, pleasant smell, unique to the baby. Every new parent can confirm this. This scent isn’t a figment of an overwhelmed parent’s imagination but rather a biological phenomenon that plays a vital role in the parent-child bonding process.

In 2019, researchers in Japan analyzed the “new baby smell” by examining samples from the heads of freshly delivered newborns at Hamamatsu University Hospital. What they found was fascinating. The smell originates from 37 volatile odor components, but its exact composition varies from baby to baby, implying a uniquely identifiable scent for each newborn. However, this scent doesn’t come from the amniotic fluid, as one might think.

A Possible Source of the New Baby Smell

Some believe that the source of this unique smell is vernix caseosa, a thin layer of waxy biofilm coating a newborn’s skin. This layer is nature’s first moisturizer for babies and only lasts a few hours after birth. Despite its brief appearance, its fragrance might stick around for a bit longer, enchanting everyone who gets a whiff.

The Role of New Baby Smell in Bonding

The power of the new baby smell isn’t just in its sweetness, but it goes way beyond that. A study from the late ’80s found that an astounding 90% of mothers could identify their infants solely by their smell after spending as little as 10 minutes to an hour with them. Isn’t that something?

Additionally, this smell can stimulate a significant release of feel-good chemicals in the brain. A 2013 study showed that the baby’s scent activated dopamine pathways in brain parts associated with reward. The research included 30 women, half of whom had just given birth, and the other half had no children. The new mothers had a stronger response to the baby smell, leading researchers to suggest that it might promote early bonding between mothers and babies.

A Two-Way Scent Connection

The remarkable part of this smell-bonding dynamic is that it isn’t a one-way street. Babies, too, have a knack for identifying their mother’s smell. In the animal kingdom, baby mice learn their mother’s scent, which prompts them to start suckling. Likewise, human babies can also recognize their mother’s scent. They respond by increasing mouthing activities, indicating their ability to identify their mother solely based on her scent.

The Intriguing Scent-Sniffing Ability of Unborn Babies

Adding another layer of complexity to this olfactory relationship is the fact that even unborn babies react differently to various smells and tastes while in the womb. This intriguing observation implies that the ability to identify scents might play a significant role from early life.

The importance of the “new baby smell” in establishing the initial bond between parents and their newborns is truly fascinating. This sweet-smelling science emphasizes how nature is incredibly well-engineered, using the senses in an ingenious way to strengthen the most primal and important of relationships – that of a parent and child.

So, next time you hold a newborn, take a moment to appreciate this unique scent. Remember, it’s not just a pleasant smell but a magical potion that sparks the beautiful bond between a parent and their baby. Isn’t nature just wonderful?

Further reading

Tristão, R. M., Lauand, L., Costa, K. S. F., Brant, L. A., Fernandes, G. M., Costa, K. N., Spilski, J., & Lachmann, T. (2021). Olfactory sensory and perceptual evaluation in newborn infants: A systematic review. Developmental psychobiology63(7), e22201.

Varendi, H., Porter, R. H., & Winberg, J. (2002). The effect of labor on olfactory exposure learning within the first postnatal hour. Behavioral neuroscience116(2), 206–211.

Numan, M., & Insel, T. R. (2003). The neurobiology of parental behavior. Springer Science & Business Media. Link

Mennella, J. A., Jagnow, C. P., & Beauchamp, G. K. (2001). Prenatal and postnatal flavor learning by human infants. Pediatrics, 107(6), E88. Link