Why Do Newborn Babies Smell So Good? Science May Finally Have An Answer

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There is something about babies that attract us immediately to them. Their cute and pudgy looks, those innocent eyes, or the tiny limbs are only a few of the things that make them irresistibly adorable. And then, there is the sweet smell that newborns almost always have. It makes us want to shower them with affection, hugs, and cuddles. We’re sure you can already imagine that smell in your mind even as you are reading this, so powerful is its memory (if you’ve smelled an infant, that is). However, not many of us know what creates this attractive smell that lingers on, even in our memory. But now, it seems as though science finally has some answers.

What Science Says About Newborn Smell..

In 2013, a study was published in the journal Frontiers In Psychology by a team of international researchers, which also included scientists from Monell Chemical Senses Center from Philadelphia (1). In this study, the researchers monitored the brain activity of about 30 women. Of these women, 15 had recently given birth whereas the remaining 15 had never given birth. Both the group of women was asked to smell the clothes/shirts worn by infants who were only 1-2 days old. All of the infants were not familiar with the women who were participating in the study. The results of the study, though not surprising, were astonishing. Both the set of women demonstrated brain activity in the areas that light up when stimulated by reward-sharing behavior. It is pretty much similar to the brain’s response to a stimulus such as some tasty food or addictive substance. This means that an infant’s smell could actually be addictive!

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Newborns And The Sweet Smell

The results of the 2013 psychology study have been fascinating and might be helpful in explaining the reason why we end up being caring and loving toward the newborns. Maybe its nature’s way of ensuring the little ‘helpless’ ones get enough care and nurturing through the powerful mechanism of attractive smell.

But what causes newborns to smell the way that they do? So far, even science hasn’t been able to give an exact answer. However, if you’d like to hazard a guess, then maybe it’s due to some chemical present in their sweat glands. Some doctors even guess that it could also be the vernix caseosa that causes the lingering smell to remain on babies days after the vernix has been washed off. However, there has been no scientific proof in this regard so far.

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Scents And ‘Sensi’bilities

Scents and the sense of smell can be quite powerful. They can trigger beautiful memories like the smell of a baby or a partner’s favorite perfume. They can also act as a safeguard against harm like the repulsive smell of rotten food indicating that it’s bad for you to consume. Scents can also become the bonding factor between a mother and her baby too. For instance, a study was conducted in 2001 where infants were kept on a warming bed to check their movements. When a clean cotton pad was placed near the babies, they showed no inclination to move. However, when a cotton pad carrying their mother’s breast odor was placed close to their nose, most of the babies moved and tried to reach out to the pad containing the breast odor (2). This study shows that babies can recognize their mother’s odor at a very early stage in their lives.

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In a separate study, infants were assessed with regard to pain relief through smell. A group of 48 healthy infants was monitored during and after their routine heel sticks. The group of infants was divided into four groups. These groups were named Own Mother’s Breast Milk Odor (Own MM), Formula Milk Odor (Formula M), Another Mother’s Breast Milk Odor (Other MM), and a control group. When they were in pain and distress after the heel sticks, each group was exposed to different smells according to their group. The final assessment results showed that the group which was exposed to their own mother’s breast milk showed significant pain relief (3)!

Isn’t it amazing how the sweet smell of your baby has always enamored you? Although the smell on your baby may fade with time, the memory of it might still linger in your mind. And now you know why!

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Sadiya Qamar

Sadiya is a writer and editor with a passion for writing about parenthood and children. Her focus areas are health, wellness, and beauty. For MomJunction, she writes on kids’ health and nutrition.  Sadiya believes in doing in-depth research and providing accurate information to help parents with concerns on their children’s growth and development.