Why women want to sniff my baby

When I started to get out and about with Baby V, I occasionally experienced a strange phenomenon. Women would approach and coo some pleasant little noises. After an appropriate amount of time had passed, these strangers would lean in close and ask to smell my baby.

I’m the first to admit that this sounds creepy. Truth be told, it is a little creepy. But now I completely get it. The joy from a single whiff of newborn far outweighs any trifling social conventions about personal space and body odors. So when women approach looking for a little hit of eau de bebe, I get sharey. By all means, ladies, lean in and smell away.

Tiny babies smell very, very good. So good that I’m getting a little high from just thinking about how good babies smell. So good that people attempt to bottle and sell this scent (like this baby-head-scented spray— pleasant, but pales in comparison). So good that scientists really want to know why some women find this smell irresistible.

Scientists recently studied the brains of women as they sniffed new baby scent. Two-day-old babies delivered the good stuff by wearing the same pajamas for two nights. Women then sniffed the odor extracted from the outfit while brain scans assessed neural activity.

Overall, the 30 women in the study (who weren’t told what they were sniffing, by the way) rated the scent as mildly pleasant. As the intoxicating scent of newborn wafted into their brains, neural activity increased in areas of the brain linked to good feelings, called neostriate areas. In the brains of the 15 women who also happened to be mothers, the brain activity seemed stronger. (No word yet on what new baby smell does to dads’ brains.)

That enticing newborn smell is just one weapon in a baby’s arsenal to trick people into taking care of their screamy, hungry, demanding little selves. Cherubic round faces please the eyes, sweet high-pitched voices tickle the ears and their scent delights the brain.

Another interesting tidbit from this study: These babies were not related to any of the women. That suggests that all babies possess this newborn goodness, and that many people enjoy smelling it — a fact not lost on any new parent.

It’s not clear when this smell — or its effect in the smeller’s brain — fades. Anecdotally, parents stop noticing the pleasant aroma around the time that crawling starts, says study coauthor Johan Lundstrom of the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia. “Now, this is mere speculation, but it might be that when the infant can start to follow the caretaker, the need to attract them is less urgent,” he told me.

So Baby V’s alluring scent tethers us together until she’s able to flit off by herself and come back when she needs something.

Laura Sanders is the neuroscience writer. She holds a Ph.D. in molecular biology from the University of Southern California.

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