Saturday, January 16, 2010

The Sense of Smell Connects Babies and Mothers

When Vena (#2) was born, she was immediately placed on my chest where she remained for 2 hours, breastfeeding like a champ. We were skin to skin and eye to eye. It was an amazing period of bonding. We remained together for most of the day and took her home that same night.

After a few days, I started to notice that in the morning after I showered, she absolutely refused to breastfeed. She would cry and hardly even wanted me to hold her. It broke my heart, but it was the only time of the day she would act like that. As I put the pieces together, I realized that I smelled different after I showered and maybe that is what angered her.

From there on, I would be sure she was well-fed before I showered so that I could start to smell like myself before she would be ready to nurse again. The experience was quite funny, but I've always known that babies know not only their mothers voice and face, but also her smell.

Mothering Magazine had a great article this issue about this exact topic. I just wanted to relay a few key points that I found fascinating. If you've read anything I've written about those first couple of hours after your baby's birth, you know how strongly I feel about you and your baby remaining together.

Did you know that your baby can smell amniotic fluid for up to a week after its birth? This is (another) good reason to place your baby skin to skin after its birth. It transfers from the baby to its mothers breasts and the baby is naturally attracted to the smell. This becomes a good reason not to bathe the baby or mother too soon.

If unmedicated babies are placed on their mother's chest after birth, they will crawl to the breast and begin to breastfeed. Experiments have been done with smell preference of the breast, and babies consistently prefer the unwashed breast over the washed breast. A breast with amniotic fluid odor is even more enticing than a "plain" breast.

In other studies, babies placed in a bassinet with a breast pad with his mother's breast odor, will "crawl" towards that pad over a clean pad.

Even formula-fed babies prefer the smell of breastmilk. A recent study in Japan was trying to find the effects of breastmilk odor and babies response to the pain of a routine heelstick test. There were four different groups -- 1) exposed to the smell of their own mother's milk, 2) another mother's milk, 3) formula milk, 4) no scent at all. Their responses were monitored and, no surprise, the babies who were exposed to the scent of their own mother's breastmilk had significantly less crying and other signs of distress. Baby's cortisol levels were also checked before and after the heelstick, and babies not provided with any scent experienced increased coritsol levels. Babies who were exposed to their mother's scent experienced stable levels.

What about mothers and the smell of her infant? One of the most magical, intoxicating things I love about having a newborn, is the smell of their breath and their head. Watch a mother holding her baby for a few minutes, and she will inevitably smell her baby's head. Rubbing my check against the check of my newborn... I can't hardly stand to write about it. I feel my heart rate increase and tears come to my eyes. Oh, how I miss that! We just don't do that with our big kids. They wouldn't stand for it! Plus, they don't smell so good anymore!

Within six days after giving birth, a mother can smell the difference between an article of clothing worn by her baby and that worn by another baby. Along those same lines, blindfolded women can tell which baby is theirs when they smell the heads of three different newborns.

I wasn't breastfed, but I do remember, as a small child, laying next to my mother for a nap and her distinct smell. Smell can take us back in time. I have an old trunk that belonged to my grandmother who died when I was almost 6 years old. When I open it, I am standing in her old log cabin in Southern Illinois. I hope this sense of smell will remind our children, even when they are grown, of where they come from and who loves them most.


Katie said...

I LOVE this idea, and cannot wait to experience it with my fist baby-due July. Also, I have never said this but your blog is almost entirely responsible for my choice to use a midwife and a homebirth with our child. Thank you!

Donna Ryan said...

Katie, that means so much to me to know that my blog is reaching people and they are making wonderful choices to ensure they have a good birth. If you live in the DFW area, I'd love to have you join my March 5 class! All home-birthers so far!

Larry & Erica Evans said...

Thanks for the post. Very interesting. Some things I never really think about. I will miss having Larry's parents here when she's born. THey have the thing of smelling new babies!

Katie said...

Donna Thanks so much for the offer! We were living in Austin until last January but are now in Seattle. We are taking a class taught by Penny Simpkin, her dates best lined up with our due date. Hope your class goes well!

Donna Ryan said...

Aw, Katie, that is so great. What a great opportunity to take a class from the famous Penny Simpkin! Enjoy! I'm so glad that my blog has been so influential in your decision to birth at home with a midwife. I look forward to hearing about it. Enjoy your class with Penny. I look forward to meeting her at the CIMS conference in Feb. in Austin.

sara said...

I have a friend who doesn't have any children tell me that breastfed babies just smell so good! I hadn't ever thought of that before, but it makes sense that our bodies would be designed to be attracted to the smell of our babies.

She told me that formula-fed babies "don't smell like anything", and that she's not attracted to them. I thought it was a very interesting observation!

BBBlogger said...

What a great post. Goes to show there's a great reason for staying in your PJ's all day in those early days ;)

Oh how I miss the newborn smell. I have a 3 and 5 year old now, rather different smells altogether!

Jess Parsons said...

Well, that's another reason to practice natural weaning! If you're lucky, you don't have to give up the snugglies just because they're not babies anymore.

I still get to cuddle up and rub my face on my "big" kids' heads a few times each day - and they _are_ too wriggly at all other times for this.

HaleeBurch said...

When I am doing this myself will it seem less gross to me? I mean I am totally committed to the natural process, I want what is best for baby. But reading this right now leaves me feeling yuck and wondering if the whole prewashed time I am going to be counting the minutes and trying to hold back a gag reflex?

beccalouise said...

yes halee, when you do it yourself it will feel natural. or at least just go with it for a bit and you won't be grossed out, I promise.