Can my baby smell me

How bonding is created through smell

The Sense of Smell in Infants and Young Children

“Hmmm, buns! Dad, today we have a roll! " Four-year-old Benni sniffs with relish when he enters kindergarten at around eight o'clock in the morning. Holding Hendrik, his father's hand, he hops down the hall. A scent of fresh yeast dough fills the rooms. “Maybe I can still help with the rolls?” Hopes Benni and says goodbye to his father. He single-mindedly goes into the group room, where every Monday morning a yeast dough is kneaded from fresh whole wheat flour.

Fresh yeast pastries have an unmistakable scent. Most children and adults associate it with the experience of a tasty meal - so does Benni. He has experienced it many times: On the first day of the kindergarten week there are homemade rolls. The whole house smells seductive. Monday morning, which many adults associate with unpleasant feelings, begins for the four-year-old with a pleasant smell and the prospect of breakfast with fresh rolls. Based on this sensory perception, Benni makes his decision for his first morning activity: He wants to help bake bread. His sense of smell helps him to orientate himself in his world.

Even the unborn can smell

The sense of smell belongs to the so-called “near senses”, as well as the sense of touch and taste. These near senses enable orientation in the immediate vicinity. On the other hand, seeing and hearing are more needed for the perception of signals and environmental stimuli over a greater distance. In order to enable orientation at close range, the sense of smell is quite mature at birth.

As early as the 28th week of pregnancy, those nerve tracts that are necessary for smelling begin to function. The embryo can smell through the amniotic fluid and its developing nasal mucosa - the further the pregnancy has progressed, the better and more intense.

Towards the end of pregnancy, the placenta becomes more and more permeable. This also contributes to better and better odor perception. The fetus's breathing and swallowing movements cause odor molecules to reach the receptors in its nose. These are passed on to the corresponding areas of the brain via neuronal stimuli and can thus be perceived by the unborn child.

Towards the end of the pregnancy, the unborn child can smell almost everything that the expectant mother can perceive in terms of odors: food scents, perfume, exhaust fumes. The amniotic fluid itself also has a characteristic odor. The unborn child perceives this very clearly. He is part of his familiar environment.

Familiar smells make orientation easier

The familiar smell of the mother's amniotic fluid can make it easier for the newborn to orientate itself in the still unknown world. Studies have shown that newborns find their own hand to suckle easier - and thus become calmer - in the first hour of life if they have not yet been washed. The researchers suspect the cause is the familiar smell of the mother's amniotic fluid, which also sticks to the baby's hand. This is one of the reasons, the conclusion drawn from this research, why newborn babies should not be washed immediately after they are born.

Even if the mother's nipples were wetted with amniotic fluid, the newborn babies preferred them. The familiar smell showed them the way to the food source and soothed them.

Bonds are created through smells

It has been found that every person has their own, unmistakable “scent mark” [scientifically: olfactory signature]. Both mothers and children are able to recognize each other by smell. Mothers could almost infallibly “sniff out” what their own child had been wrapped in under several T-shirts. They were able to do this even if they had only spent ten minutes with their own child after the birth. The reverse is also true: Researchers have observed that children a few days old became much calmer - their still fidgety and disorganized body movements decreased significantly - when they could perceive their own mother's body odor.

In this respect, breastfed babies have an advantage over bottle-fed babies because they can always smell their mother when they eat. Soothing by familiar smells are of great value for the well-being and development of the baby: It serves its growth and its undisturbed development.

If, contrary to its habit, the baby is suddenly more restless than usual, the cause may be an unfamiliar smell: a deodorant or perfume that his mother used and that covers up the familiar body odor. One young mother saw her 7-month-old son refusing to drink from her left breast for 12 hours. The only possible cause: the young mother had applied perfume samples to her left forearm while strolling through town.

“You can't smell yourself” is the saying of people who don't like each other. In this colloquial expression, the empirical knowledge of the binding function of the sense of smell is expressed.

Cuddly toys and cuddly blankets: take the familiar smell with you wherever you go

Children between the first and third years of life, who move further and further away from their mother, often prefer a comfort blanket or a cuddly toy that they take with them wherever they go. Adults often look at their favorite object, which has become unsightly, with skepticism and can hardly understand why this is so indispensable for the child. And when the good thing goes into the washing machine for hygienic reasons, parents are often surprised by the screams of protest or howls of their child; or they experience that they cannot fall asleep at all with the freshly washed comforter. It is not uncommon for the cuddly toy to be abandoned or the blanket to be abandoned.

Researchers suspect that it is the familiar smells of one's own saliva or other liquids that emanate from the cuddly object. This calms down the children when they are in a strange environment or when their parents are not available. With the item they prefer, the children take their familiar olfactory environment with them, so to speak, and feel safer in the world. In the phase of separation from the parents, such objects make it easier for them to get used to the daycare center or with the childminder.

The behavior described is culturally shaped. In other cultures, where small children live in constant physical proximity to their parents, attachment to a transitional object is observed much less often.

Feeling good with a familiar smell

Four-year-old Benni only uses his cuddly toy to fall asleep in the evenings. In kindergarten, he decided a few months ago, there is too much to do - he wants his hands free. But the fact that it smells so good in his day-care center every Monday morning makes it easier for him to feel at home again after the weekend at home with his parents.


  • Lise Eliot (2010): What's going on inside? Brain development in the first five years of life. Berlin-Verlag, 2nd edition.
  • Renate Zimmer (2012): Handbook of Sensory Perception, Freiburg.

More articles by the author here in our family handbook


Elisabeth C. Gründler

Freelance journalist

Prinzregentenstrasse 69a

10715 Berlin

Created on October 14, 2003, last changed on October 28, 2013