November 4, 2012

Pure Magic: A Mom and Her Baby

Guess what, moms? Your baby loves how you smell, from the first moment of life.

I don’t mean your soap or perfume. I mean your natural, distinct odor. She recognizes your scent, and she loves it.

If she just arrived in this world, how can she recognize your smell?

This is one of those instances where science makes me smile. The answer is: because she’s been swimming in it for nine months.

It turns out that a woman’s amniotic fluid, which surrounds her developing fetus, smells and tastes like she does. The fetus develops the ability to sense these qualities from early in gestation. So at birth, a mother’s unique scent is well-known to her baby.

Newborns are soothed, when separated from their mothers, by exposure to a cotton pad with the odor of her breast or her amniotic fluid. They cry for significantly shorter periods of time.

We all know how powerful a familiar scent can be; how one whiff can transport us to a different world. A newborn has been jolted into a harsh, new reality of bright lights, loud noises, cold, hunger, and pain. Just imagine: any reminder of the perfect life she left behind must be heavenly. Is it any wonder she cries for her mother day and night?

This biology is fun to know, but it’s also relevant to many of the debates on social issues we face. Some argue for “the new normal” – donated eggs and sperm, wombs for rent, two mothers or two fathers. They contend that biological relationships are disposable, and that male or female, father or mother – they’re all the same to a child.

Science has a different message. Science says male and female are unique, and that biological relationships are profound and irreplaceable, especially the one between a mother and her infant. In both animals and humans, there’s nothing like it.

Biological truths are not always politically correct, and ignoring them can be hazardous.

Stay tuned for more blogs about the magic between moms and their babies, and how it undermines “the new normal”.

Varendi, H. (1998) Soothing effect of amniotic fluid smell in newborn infants
Early Human Development Volume 51, Issue 1 , Pages 47-55
PORTER, R. H., and WINBERG, J. (1999). Unique salience of maternal
breast odors for newborn infants. Neurosci. Biobehav. R. 23:439–449.


  1. Kerry - reply

    I fostered and then adopted my son at a young age. It was astounding to me that when we went for visits, how repelled he was at the smell of his mother and he was only five-months-old. Anything that had been touching her, set him off in distraught crying. I felt then that smell played a big part in a baby’s development. Thanks for writing this. VERY interesting.

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  3. P. Grossman - reply

    The point is well taken that infants bond during gestation and this natural connection should not be dismissed, but there is also a larger picture to be considered sometimes. Our very traditional and Orthodox Jewish family could not have existed without the kind help of a gestational surrogate (now my friend) after decades of obstetrical tragedy. I just wrote you a letter today thanking you for your wonderful book, You’re Teaching My Child What? but I really, really hope that you are not vilifying all gestational surrogacy and that you will keep in mind that not everyone who uses a gestational surrogate, or donor gametes for that matter, is seeking to undermine or deny nature. Far from it, many of us appreciate nature and suffer the pain of having to build our families in unnatural ways.

  4. MiriamGrossman - reply

    It’s a complex and difficult issue. To intentionally create a child knowing that his bio mother or father will have no part in his life is, I believe, unethical. We need to listen to the voices of people conceived via sperm (and less commonly, egg) donation. They are speaking up, and expressing their pain and anger. There’s an excellent documentary on this by Jennifer Lahl called “Anonymous Father’s Day”.

    Surrogacy can also be problematic, but I am so glad that in your case things have turned out well.

    I’m concerned that young people to being led to believe that because we can work all sorts of wonders in the lab, there is no longer an ideal way to bring a child into the world, and there is no ideal family structure. This is simply not true, but I see from your comment that we probably agree about that.

  5. Stan - reply

    I showed this blog to a pregnant woman who works in a restaurant. She loved it and said she teared up as she was reading it. She is due this summer, 2013.

  6. Alan Peterson - reply

    We adopted our daughter. We were in the delivery room, and the doctor that assisted in the delivery took our daughter, ripped my wife’s gown, and “slathered” the baby on her chest. He asked me to join my wife in that first hug, and we then went into the nursery and bathed her, weighed and measured her, and swaddled her without a nurse’s assistance.
    Back then, I thought that it was just a beautiful experience, but after reading this blog, I now understand why it is so impossible for our daughter to even think that she had a “birth mother and a sperm donor” even though she knew that she was adopted since her development years! She is an adult now, and still forgets sometimes to explain to her doctor that her medical history is not directly related to ours.

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