Olfactory memory refers to the recollection of smells, the likes of which can send you hurtling down memory lane at rocket speed. I have a vivid memory of my daughter, just born, and the fragrance wafting from her fuzzy little head so potent and powerful I could literally taste it. When I catch a whiff of another newborn babe’s barnet, I am similarly transported to those early days of motherhood. The smell isn’t quite the same, but the effect on my mind—and my ovaries—is pretty intoxicating. The phenomenon is not personal to me, of course; newborn baby smell is an actual thing—but why?
According to evolutionary science, that eau de babe smell is down to survival.
“As anyone with a baby knows, newborns are not too much fun to be around. 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,” explains physician and anatomy professor Johannes Frasnelli. “So, of course, there must be mechanisms which allow for a very strong bond between parents, especially mothers, and the baby. We think that the odour of babies is involved in one of these mechanisms”.
Frasnelli co-authored a study examining the human female response to the scent of a newborn. Out of a group of 30 women—half who were newly postpartum and half who had never given birth—the effects were identical and unmistakable: brain scans revealed that “body odours from 2 day-old newborns elicit activation in reward-related cerebral areas in women.” In short, a newborn smell makes you feel like you’re eating chocolate. Or on a super feel-good trip.
The origin of the baby scent remains an enigma, however. Some speculate the sweat glands as the source, others say the waxy white vernix coating that clings to babies at birth is responsible.
What is certain is that smell is a powerful thing in the maternal-infant relationship. Babies can discern between their mother’s milk and milk from another based on smell alone, and mums consistently report that their own offspring’s poop is more tolerable than others. True story, and strangely sentimental.