Babies and How Scents Affect Them!



Excerpts taken from:




A Sense of Smell Institute White Paper REVIEW: OLFACTION IN THE HUMAN INFANT
Regina M. Sullivan, Ph.D. Department of Zoology, University of Oklahoma July 2000




Due to the popularity of aromatherapy, most people are aware that some odors can have a powerful effect on our mood.




Français : Nez


A spa will provide the scent of lavender to promote a feeling of contentment and relaxation, while peppermint scent may be infused into an office to invigorate workers and increase productivity. Yet, people do not think odors are important in their life. The fact is, the ability of odors to modify our behavior appears to work in a subtle manner and can control our behavior on a primitive level.


English: A close-up of a bumblebee on a stem o...

English: A close-up of a bumblebee on a stem of lavendar. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


The brain continues to develop after the infant is born. The newborn is capable of responding to the four distinct taste sensations of sweet, salty, sour, and bitter (Beauchamp, Cowart, Mennella, Marsh,1994; Kajirua, Cowart, Beauchamp, 1992; Rosenstein & Oster, 1988) but odor contributes significantly in the infant’s responsiveness to food. During ingestion, volatile molecules from food waft up through a passageway in the back of the mouth (nasopharnyx) and reach the olfactory receptors. This is called retronasal olfaction (smells within the mouth).



Scented toys can enhance attention. Playing with a toy is modified by adding an odor stimulus to that toy (Mennella & Beauchamp,1998a) Breast fed babies were videotaped while playing with an object which was either scented (ethanol or vanilla) or unscented. Infants looked more and vocalized less in the presence of the vanilla-scented toy and spent less time manipulating the ethanol-scented toy when compared with the unscented toy. Moreover, infants manipulation of these toys was altered by their prior experience with these odorants. Additional research suggests that infants are learning while playing with the scented toy. After experience with a cherry scented object, infants later spent more time looking at the object as compared
to experience with an unscented object.








Odors can reduce stress. Based on the above review of infant’s responsiveness to maternal
odor, it appears that this natural odor calms (e.g., reduces crying) the infant (sullivan & Toubas, 1998). In addition, there is some evidence that artificial odors may also relieve infant stress. Five-day-old infants were presented with the odor of formula, lavender or no odor during a heel prick procedure to obtain blood. Both odor groups had reduced levels of adrenocortisol release (high cortisol levels indicate stress) compared to the no odor groups (Kawakamiu, Takai-Kawakami, Okazaki, Kurhara, Yukiko & Yanaihara, 1997). Further support for the calming/stress reducing effects of odor comes from the effects of odor on sleep-wake cycle (Goodin-Jones, Eiben, Anders, 1997); the presence of maternal odor helped infants develop a more organized sleep-wake cycle.




Can I use odors to sooth my baby? Yes, babies can be soothed with artificial odors such as vanilla or lavender. In fact, lavender has been shown to reduce the baby’s corticosterone level, a hormone associated with stress. Maternal odor, in the form of a worn article of clothing, can also be used to sooth a baby. In fact providing a baby is a nightgown worn by a mother who can not be present is a technique used by some newborn nurseries to sooth a crying or distressed infant. Research has shown that maternal odors can sooth an infant, attenuate it’s crying and help organize the sleep-wake cycle. However, infants become distressed when they need something, such as food, physical contact or nurturing. Thus, soothing your baby with an odor should only be a temporary measure. Also remember that babies can unlearn (or extinguish) to like an odor. For example, if your baby is smelling your perfume in the crib without you more often than the smell of perfume while you interact with your baby, the perfume will soon lose its ability to comfort the baby.


A smiling baby lying in a soft cot (furniture).

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)


Will my wearing a perfume be bad for the baby? It is fine to wear perfume when you are with your baby. The baby will simply develop a preference for your perfume. However, it is not advisable to switch perfume since it may slightly confuse your baby. Remember that infant learn their mother’s body odor, face and voice. Changing one of your characteristics may be temporarily disconcerting to your baby but they are likely to learn the new hairstyle or perfume in a day or two.







Will wearing a perfume prevent the baby from learning my natural body odor? Probably not. Babies can learn to prefer more than one odor, such has mother’s odor and amniotic fluid. There is no indication that infants do not attach to mothers that wear perfume. Furthermore, bottle fed babies are probably not learning the mother’s natural odor as well as breast fed babies do but this certainly does not mean the bottle-fed baby is not attached to its mother. In other words, thus far, research has not shown any special qualities of natural maternal odor. In fact, it appears as though we have a very open, plastic olfactory system that permits
us to form odor preferences to natural and artificial odors. Remember, infants can learn to like odors which are associated with rewarding events, such as feeding and touch. Therefore, infants will probably learn to like the smell of the perfume worn by the mother and after-shave worn or natural odor of the father.



Will my baby like this perfume as an adult? There are no studies on humans concerning this subject. However, other mammals usually show life long preferences to odors experienced in infancy. However, see the next question.



Are adult males attracted to the perfume their mother wore? We do not know since this has never been assessed in humans. However, adult human woman do not choose partners with similar genetic signature (MHC), presumably the same molecular complex thought to give the mother her “olfactory signature.” Based on animal research, one can answer yes or no. Adult mice will choose a mate most unlike the odor experienced in infancy. However, adult rats will showed enhanced sexual behavior when presented with the odors experienced during infancy.




Should I let my child wear perfume? Why not, if they enjoy it. The child will habituate to the perfume odor and still smell the odors they encounter in their environment.




Should I give my baby odors to help stimulate it? Yes, just as we stimulate the visual system with a mobile hanging over the crib, we can stimulate the olfactory system by providing the infant with pleasant odors. Babies find some odors naturally pleasant, such as vanilla, lavender and banana. In fact, research shows that infants enjoy playing with scented toys.
However, remember the issue of unimodal and multimodal stimuli. Placing an odor in a crib
(unimodal stimulation – one sensory system stimulated) will not take the place of the baby interacting with a person who provides visual, auditory, somatosensory and olfactory stimulation (multimodal-many sensory systems stimulated). Infancy is an important time for learning, especially learning about the relationships between experiences. For example, it is important for the infant to understand that smelling your odor means you are approaching. It may be confusing for your infant to smell apple odor without learning about where that odor comes from. Remember that a baby must learn that apple smell comes from an apple – would it be confusing for a baby to learn that apple smell comes from eating an apple slice, drinking apple juice and playing with an apple smelling teddy bear. It is great for an infant to smell apple odor and play with apple sauce to experience the temperature, tactile , olfactory and taste. There is lots of learning going on here.




How will I know when my baby does not want the odor? Babies generally make the same facial expressions to odorants as adults do. Therefore, if you are overstimulating your baby with an odor, you may be able to detect this based on the baby’s facial expression. Also, an infant is more easily overstimulated when it is tired, suggesting that you need to be aware of your baby’s readiness to receive stimulation. Overstimulation in the olfactory system is no different than overstimulation in the visual system. When the lights are too bright for a baby, he or she will close its eyes and turn away. A baby’s response to an unwanted odor will be similar.  Overstimulation of any sensory system is not good for a baby and can result in
stress and excessive stress is not good for infants, children or adults. Due to individual differences in babies, it is important that you be able to read your baby to know when to give more stimulation and when to give less. For optimal normal brain development, an infant must receive the proper amount of sensory stimulation – not too much and not too little.






Can I give my baby too much odor? Yes, concerning all activities with a baby, more is not necessarily better. While odors can sooth your baby, too much odor can be unpleasant. While babies have a higher threshold for odor detection than adults, if the odor is too strong for you, it is probably too strong



How is it possible that we can not remember anything about our early life, yet these early odor and taste memories appear so strong? It is true that we do not remember our early life. We do not know the reason for this – perhaps it is because the brain is still developing and there is a great deal of natural elimination of neurons and growth of additional connections on surviving neurons. We also know that early experiences have profound effects on the mature organism but these are not always on a conscious level. Some researchers think that odors going directly to our “old cortex” place odor memories in preverbal state, we have the memories but we simply can not verbalize them. The infant’s brain can actually be anatomically and  physiologically shaped by these early experiences.











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