September 1, 2016

Making Sense of Scent in Bonding with Baby

Written by Baby Science Live Coverage Team

From birth through infancy and later into school-age years, children’s senses are tested in various ways to gauge their physical and psychosocial development. Yet amid a field of hearing tests, respiratory tests, vision tests, and more, the most fundamental sense is never methodically tested: the sense of smell.

Within just two days of birth, a newborn has already oriented to its mother’s scent. That’s because in the third trimester of pregnancy, baby’s olfactory system is already up and running, and he or she is experiencing their mother’s scent through amniotic fluid. Bonding to mother’s scent, starting later in pregnancy, begins the emotional connection of mom and baby, helping her newborn recall positive feelings when experiencing her scent throughout infancy and beyond.

“We smell with our noses, and we also smell with our brain,” noted Dr. Pamela Dalton. “Understanding deficits in the sense of scent is important for pediatricians, but there’s no biologically relevant, clinical assessment yet available to assess this most fundamental of senses.”

Because the sense of smell has a direct connection with part of brain that processes emotional information, it is deeply tied to emotion and memory. It has been observed, explained Dr. Dalton, that adults who have lost their sense of smell between births of multiple children report missing a dimension of boding because they cannot smell their newborn infant.

“We don’t know what the infant experience is like, but we know that trying to understand how they experience smell is important given its biological significance in orienting towards parents,” noted Dr. Dalton. “As adults we really undervalue our sense of smell and its role in social communication – and we probably pay even less attention to it in our children, when in reality we need to explore it much more.”