Health

New baby smell creates 'very strong' bond in mom's brain, study finds

Sep. 24, 2013 at 12:17 PM ET

                             Diana Flower, Jason Flower and baby Cecily Francis
Diana Flower
"I couldn't tell you what she smells like, but it's emblazoned in my memory, says mom Diana Flower of her baby Cecily Francis, seen here with dad Jason.

Mmm, you smell so good, I could eat you up! Any parent who has snuggled a newborn baby knows the powerful feelings evoked from smelling that fresh, warm little head. A new study from University of Montreal scientists explains why new baby smell is so delicious.

From the moment she first held her newborn, Diana Flower was captivated by the baby’s smell. It got into her head and stayed with her wherever she went, even after she started back to work part time.

“I couldn’t tell you what she smells like,” Flower says. “But it’s emblazoned in my memory. I can call it up when I’m not with her and it gives me such a happy, relaxed feeling. It’s visceral, almost like you took a muscle relaxer. It feels like it releases some sort of drug.”

The scent of a newborn baby really does tap right into the pleasure centers of a woman’s brain, whether the smell comes from her own baby or someone else’s, scientists have discovered. The new findings have been described in a study just published in Frontiers in Psychology.

“These are the areas of the brain that are activated if you are very hungry and you finally get something to eat or if you are a drug addict and you finally get the drug you were craving,” says study co-author Johannes Frasnelli, a postdoctoral researcher and lecturer in the department of psychology at the University of Montreal.

“Apparently nature has provided us with a tool that helps with the bonding between a mother and her newborn child. It’s very strong.”

To look at how a newborn’s smell affects the brain, an international team of scientists rounded up 30 women, 15 of whom had given birth three to six weeks earlier. The other 15 had never had a baby.

While the women were in a brain scanner, the scientists presented them with either the scent of a newborn baby or just fresh air. The researchers captured ‘essence of newborn’ by taking t-shirts that babies had worn for two days and then freezing them in plastic bags until the scent was needed for the experiment.

While all the women reported that the newborn scent was pleasant, there was a difference on the brain scans between the new moms and the women who had never had a baby: as soon as the newborn scent was detected, the pleasure centers of the all the women sparked, but in the new moms they lit much brighter.

We’ve most likely evolved to respond that way because the birth of a baby shakes up the world of any new parent, Frasnelli says. The helpless baby needs some way to make grownups care.

“A mother with her first child goes from living life in a couple to all of a sudden having to care for a little human being who cries whenever it wants and whom you have to clean up after. It’s a big, big disturbance. It could be seen as something unpleasant, and yet most parents get pleasure from it.”

The researchers haven’t looked at the impact of newborn scent on dads, but Frasnelli suspects fathers’ brains will also react.

“From my personal perspective, the body odor of babies is something I also like a lot,” he says. “When you cuddle and get close to them, they smell very good.”

It makes perfect sense that we’re programmed to respond to baby scents in this way, says Diane Sanford a psychologist who specializes in maternal-child health and a co-author of “Life Will Never Be the Same: The Real Mom’s Postpartum Survival Guide.”

“For those first few months babies are mostly just needing to be cared for and we don’t get much positive feedback from them,” Sanford says. “So the fact that the pleasure centers are activated makes it more rewarding at a time when parenthood is very intensive and depleting. Our little receptors are lighting up and we have good feelings to offset all the hard work and exhaustion.”

That special scent buoys parents until the baby has other pleasures to offer, Sanford says.

“It’s great that babies start smiling when they’re a couple of months old, when most parents are worn out and not much positive is coming back to them,” she explains. “Then the kid smiles, and oh my gosh, it’s the best thing in the world.”

Sanford suspects that something switches on during pregnancy and delivery, which would explain why the brains of new moms sparked so much more brightly than those of women who’d never had a child.

It could also explain Flower’s own experience.

Before her baby was born, she wasn’t especially enamored of friends’ babies.

“I liked babies, but after holding them for a while, I’d be struck by the smells like spit up and want to give them back,” the 37-year-old St. Louis area attorney remembers. “It kind of had me worried what would happen with my own baby. But with her it’s nothing like that. It’s intoxicating.” 

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