Our sense of smell is so important for telling and understand our own life stories. We use scent to build memories, recognize warning signs, and explore the world around us. But when it comes to the creation of new life, scent is an amazing component of birth and the bond between mother and baby.
Every mother will claim that birth has a specific scent, but research into the scent of giving birth has been a challenge. While it’s hard to define that specific scent, which many describe as musky or potent, the hormonal effects are well-noted.
Some medical professionals, birthing coaches, and doulas report experiencing a boost of oxytocin when being present for labor and delivery of a newborn baby. Oxytocin is a hormone that kick starts the labor process, but it's also associated with bonding, love, and intimacy. Perhaps it’s this oxytocin rush that helps to associate the birthing experience with the olfactory system interpretation of this moment.
After delivery, mothers often spend a few moments bonding with their new baby exposed skin to skin, and taking in that “new baby scent” that we’ve all come to know so well. Scientifically, that amazing scent of a newborn is part of our brain chemistry.
According to a 2013 study in Frontiers of Psychology, brain scans of women showed that body odors of 2 day-old newborns elicited activation in the reward-related cerebral areas of the brain. Interestingly enough, it didn’t matter whether or not the study participants had given birth - both mothers and non-mothers reacted to the baby scent as if it were an intoxicating drug.
As for what causes the amazing new baby smell? It’s still a bit of a mystery. Some researchers speculate that it comes from a baby’s sweat glands, while others note that it could be a lingering scent of vernix caseosa, which is the substance that covers babies when they are born and is then washed off after birth.
Regardless of where the new baby smell comes from, scent-based bonding is an important part of building the relationship between parent and child. With every inhale, new babies and mothers draw in invisible olfactory signals for our brains to decode and assign meaning to.
Newborns use their sense of smell to recognize and distinguish their own mothers. Both in and out of the womb, mother and child undergo imprinting through visual, auditory, and olfactory learning, forming that solid relationship foundation. In fact, from the beginning of pregnancy, olfactory recognition is a component that helps a baby to identify his or her mother.
After birth, studies have shown that babies will pick up on the chemical scent properties of their mothers, preferring the scent of clothes worn by their mothers as opposed to other mothers. In another study, researchers in Japan found that infants who smelled their own mother's milk while undergoing a routine procedure exhibited fewer signs of distress than babies who were exposed to another mother's milk, formula, or nothing at all. The scent of their mother's breast milk was enough to calm the newborns and ease pain.
Our olfactory system can detect stress levels, disease, and even relationships. As a result, parents and their children come to find each other’s natural odors to be comforting, reassuring, and welcome. It’s an incredible phenomenon that continues to be studied.
With each inhale and every moment, a stronger bond is built.