Sniffing A Newborn’s Head Is Like Taking Drugs

by Wendy Wisner
Originally Published: 
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There is something about a newborn’s scent, isn’t there? I had my last baby over six years ago, but just thinking about inhaling the top of a newborn’s fuzzy head makes my ovaries feel like they are going to explode. I couldn’t even tell you what a newborn’s head smells like exactly, only that it’s delicious, divine, and makes me feel cozy and content inside.

Honestly, if I was having a bad day, and you handed me a newborn to smell, I’d probably be feeling just fine in a matter of seconds. It really is that powerful, if you ask me.

It makes sense, too. Smell is one of the most primitive human senses. Studies show that babies can pick out their own mother’s scent from the get-go, and that babies can distinguish their mother’s breastmilk by scent from other breastmilk as young as three days old. (I know my baby could smell my milk from a freaking mile away!)

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Moms are bloodhounds when it comes to recognition of their baby’s scents too. When tested, 90% of moms could recognize their baby’s unique smell, according to a study published in Developmental Psychobiology. I’m pretty sure I’d have been able to sniff out the scent of my baby’s poop, too, if I’m being honest. We moms know these things.

And get this: In 2013, a pretty remarkable study came out that pointed to what happens to the brain when we take in that amazing newborn scent. Basically, the researchers found that smelling a newborn was akin to eating delicious food or taking drugs. Yes, really. And makes total sense when you think about it.

The research, published in Frontiers in Psychology, studied brain scans of women who had recently smelled newborns. Thirty women were studied: 15 had recently given birth, and 15 had never been moms. The women were given several sample smells to take in, and were asked to identify a newborn’s scent. Only some of the women were able to correctly do so, but that wasn’t the most interesting aspect of the study.

While the researchers were looking at these women’s brains via MRI imaging, they found something pretty incredible. When the women inhaled baby scents, their brain scans showed increased activity in the dopamine pathway of the brain that is associated with rewards. “Other odors, like those of delicious foods, trigger this pathway, and the same dopamine surge is also associated with satiating sexual and drug-addiction cravings,” notes

Speaking with The Cut, Johannes Frasnelli, a co-author of the study, described the significance of his research. “As anyone with a baby knows, newborns are not too much fun to be around,” Frasnelli said. “They sleep, eat, and make you change the diapers. Still, most if not all parents say that having a baby is one of the greatest experiences.”

Frasnelli surmises that the reason newborn scents seem to be linked so strongly with the “reward centers” of our brain is so that humans have a built-in imperative to become bonded to their babies. “[T]here must be mechanisms which allow for a very strong bond between parents, especially mothers, and the baby,” Frasnelli said. “We think that the odor of babies is involved in one of these mechanisms.”

Absolutely fascinating, right? And I think all parents totally get that. I mean, caring for a newborn isn’t always pleasant. It’s exhausting, draining, and depressing at times. It makes sense that biology would make sure there were some rewards for us parents … you know, so we don’t give up on the whole parenting thing from the onset.

Interestingly, although moms reacted more strongly to the inhalation of newborn scents in Frasnelli’s study, non-moms also had their dopamine pathways triggered. As the researchers note, this may point to a push in biological evolution for all folks – not just biological parents – to be drawn toward protecting and bonding with newborns.

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“The participating women, independent of maternal status, demonstrated increased processing in the neostriate areas, thus suggesting that a 2 day-old newborn infant’s body odor may convey cues that can motivate affect in parent or non-parent females to care for unrelated and unfamiliar infant alike,” the researchers concluded.

Yes, it most definitely takes a village to raise our kids and make sure they are safe and loved.

And I can personally attest to the fact that before I become a mom, I was already totally enthralled with that newborn baby scent. I mean, it’s definitely part of the reason I got myself into the whole parenting thing in the first place. So maybe there’s an evolutionary imperative behind non-moms getting their dopamine fix when they hold other people’s babies … you know, so we can feel a pull toward making more delicious-smelling human babies.

I am officially done having babies, although if you were to hand me a newborn right now and demand that I sniff its soft little head, I very well might tell you on the spot that I’d changed my mind. Yes, that’s how damn powerful that newborn scent is!

Still, there will come a day when reproducing won’t even be an option for me, and at that point I’m going to need scientists to come up with a way to bottle the newborn baby smell. Or, you know, my kids better hurry up and give me some grandkids. Because a mama needs her fix.

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