Babies, especially newborns, fascinate us to no end. Their tiny fingers, delicate body, and cute facial features get the better of our curiosity. However, we often underestimate what we know about them. For instance, we are usually not aware of when their sensory organs develop fully. We know that babies develop hearing while they are still inside the womb, around week 18 of pregnancy (1). However, we don’t know much about their sense of smell. But did you know that babies might be able to recognize the mother by their smell too? Amazing, isn’t it? So, to quell your curiosity, let’s discuss some facts about the development of a baby’s sense of smell and how it helps them.
Usually, by week 8, or week 6 after conception, the baby’s nose develops inside the womb (2). It is believed that babies are, therefore, able to smell while still inside the womb. Thus, to explore this facet, some researchers conducted a simple study. They started with the theory that our sense of taste and smell are inter-related. In fact, almost 90% of our sense of taste is actually due to smell. Some strong food flavors such as garlic, anise, carrot, and mint have been found to be transmitted into the amniotic fluid. Babies reside within the amniotic fluid and are even believed to consume a few ounces of it every now and then. Naturally then, it is assumed, that babies become familiar with the smell of such foods inside the womb itself.
To test this theory, researchers fed a group of pregnant women sugar and garlic capsules regularly. Then they routinely collected their amniotic fluid samples. These samples were then smelled by panel members who were blindfolded. All the panel members were able to easily tell the samples that came from pregnant women who ate garlic. This was an indirect proof that the smell and flavors of certain foods did make their way into the amniotic fluid and babies were experiencing them too.
Taking these findings further, another set of pregnant women were tested with carrot juice. While one group was asked to drink carrot juice daily during their pregnancy, another was asked to skip it completely. These sets of pregnant women were then followed up after childbirth until their babies started on solids. At that point, researchers offered these babies cereal made from carrot juice or water. They noticed that babies who were exposed to carrot juice within the amniotic fluid preferred cereal made out of carrot juice over one made with water (3).
The olfactory center (for smell) in a baby’s brain forms very early during fetal development inside the womb. Therefore, when babies are born, they are believed to have a keen sense of smell. This sense of smell not only helps them to recognize their mothers by smell but also guides them toward their first source of food – breast milk (4). Yes, you’ve heard that right. We’re sure it now makes sense to you how babies turn in the right direction when they are brought closer to the mother’s breast just before feeding.
As babies grow, they’ll soon get familiar with other smells, especially those that have a mild smell like breast milk. This is the reason why baby care products contain light fragrances so that they have a soothing effect. At times, when your baby is stressed, like waking up in the middle of a nap or experiencing post-vaccination pain, a familiar soothing smell can calm down your baby in a jiffy (5). You can always use your baby’s keen sense of smell to your advantage as your baby grows. For instance, if your baby hates baths, you can include bath soaps or gels that have soothing fragrances to get your little bambino into the tub.
So, aren’t these facts about a baby’s sense of smell as fascinating as the babies themselves? We bet you learned a thing or two about them today. Let us know at what age of your baby did you discover that his/her sense of smell had developed.