Why do newborn babies smell so good?

The power of scent plays an important role in our daily lives. Whether it is the smell of freshly baked bread or a fragrant bouquet of roses, our sense of smell triggers the part of our brains that affect emotions, memory and creativity. Hence smell is intimately linked with emotional memory. 

For many, the unique smell of a newborn baby is irresistible. For the first few weeks after birth, you’ll often see parents and family members sniffing a newborn’s head. But why is this?  No one knows exactly, but here are some theories: 

  • What we do know is that each baby has its own smell. Research has found that the smell is so unique that a mother can tell her baby by its scent – a bit like a biological perfume, supporting maternal bonding.
  • Some studies have shown that the smell of a newborn baby can be as addictive as food or drugs, with the smell accessing the reward part of the brain releasing feel-good hormones such as serotonin, oxytocin, endorphins and dopamine.
  • More generally, from an evolutionary perspective, the attractiveness of a baby’s smell makes a lot of sense. It helps bond parents to their babies – despite all the inevitable messiness and changes that come with caring for a young baby. 

You may still be wondering what actually causes the enticing scent that so strongly compels us to sniff a newborn’s head. Here are what the specialists suggest: 

  • The scent comes from the amniotic fluid that the baby has been lying in whilst in the mother’s womb. 
  • It is commonly thought that the sweet scent of babies comes from the secreted chemicals in a baby’s sweat glands.
  • Another suggestion is that the smell comes from vernix caseosa, the white, cream substance (like a natural Vaseline) that covers the skin of a newborn. Although this substance doesn’t last long on a baby’s skin the scent may linger for a few weeks on the hair and skin. 

The presumed causes of a baby’s scent, particularly the vernix caseosa, help aid the healthy development of a baby. In the past, it has been common practice to bathe and clean a newborn immediately. Nowadays, it is encouraged to delay bathing until at least 24 hrs after birth because the vernix caseosa acts as a natural barrier and moisturiser for the baby’s skin. It is also advised to bathe baby in plain water only for at least one month.

The added bonus of delayed bathing is that it enables more time for skin-to-skin contact for the mother to bond and enjoy that wonderful newborn baby scent!

We know it’s not just parents who enjoy the scent of a newborn baby, friends and other family members also find the smell of a baby’s head irresistible! Sadly, this newborn scent does wear off after a few weeks. 

18 January 2023