The Importance of Smell for Development

From birth, baby's various senses work harmoniously to lay a neurocognitive foundation for security, wellness, and development. Learning to interpret and appropriately respond to all the information coming their way is critical for development - a process known as sensory integration. Your baby’s sense of smell is key in this process, and smell has a special relationship with the brain because it is our ‘fastest’ sense, communicating with the brain quicker than all other senses.

Baby’s sense of smell begins developing in the womb where nasal receptors interact with the unique signature of their mother’s amniotic fluid. Amniotic fluid very easily transmits a wealth of information from the ‘outside world’ to baby’s budding nasal receptors from influences like their mother’s genetic makeup, stress profile, dietary preferences, and more. It’s even been shown that eating garlic alters the odor profile of a mother’s amniotic fluid!

Scents learned in the womb support baby’s transition to life outside the womb. It is understood that initial skin-to-skin contact with mothers just after birth helps establish a sense of safety for baby because they can immediately recognize their mother from her signature smells, as well as their heightened attraction to the odor of milk. When it comes time for baby to transition to solid foods, their brains have primed them for this transition from the odors imprinted in their mother’s amniotic fluid, and the odors communicated through breastmilk in the case of a breastfed child.

With its social basis in security and attachment, the sense of smell is also closely linked to emotion and memory. Nasal receptors within the nasal cavity connect to the olfactory bulb, sending stimuli to baby's amygdala and hippocampus, areas of the brain associated with memory consolidation. Research on the connection of smell and memory is still emerging, but there have been shown to be stronger links between smell and memory compared to other senses like sight and touch to memory.

Knowing the importance of smell to cognitive development means it’s an excellent sense to focus on when enriching baby’s everyday environment.

Try these simple activities:

Skin-to-skin with baby.

  • Familiarizing them to your signature scent provides a foundation of security and recognition. And this isn’t just for newborns! Cuddling baby close at every age is important, and not just for olfactory development.

Introduce baby to a variety of smells wherever, whenever.

  • Cooking something? Let them have a smell. Walking by fragrant flowers? Introduce them to it. Eating something? Encourage them to smell it even if they are not interested at the moment, they may be soon.

Use moments of routine to introduce new smells.

  • During bathtime, count baby’s toes while saying the number out loud as you touch each one. Use Our Shampoo and Body Wash Concentrate to wash baby as you go introduces notes of honeysuckle, lavender and chamomile that are naturally soothing for baby.
  • During a diaper change, massage baby with Our Moisturizing Cream and let them smell it up close. Describe the scent of chamomile in our cream and you’re engaging language as well!

For more stage based development activities, become a Healthybaby Member and receive full access to The Wow and the How: A Series to Unlock Development in Daily Life.

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